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Democrats Probe for Root of Immigration Agency Budget Shortfall

July 29, 2020, 6:04 PM

House Democrats remained unconvinced during a Capitol hearing that the budgetary shortfalls facing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are solely a product of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Trump administration has yet to submit a formal request to furnish emergency funding for the Department of Homeland Security sub-agency despite its operating deficit. Lawmakers are seeking information about what led to the shortfall.

“We are eager to assist and want to provide the agency with the resources needed,” Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) said at the nearly three-hour agency oversight hearing Wednesday.

Democratic members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship asked acting agency head Joseph Edlow about USCIS hiring decisions, continued backlog issues, and other concerns they had with its handling of resources.

Edlow, whose title with the agency is Deputy Director of Policy, told the committee that without funding from Congress, the agency will have no choice but to proceed with furloughs for two-thirds of its staff on Aug. 30. USCIS is a fee-funded agency, as opposed to most other government agencies that receive appropriations from Congress.

“A fee funded agency must have sufficient funding on Sept. 30 to carry over on Oct. 1 to sustain operations for the next fiscal year. The pandemic has virtually decimated this carry-over funding,” Edlow said in testimony before the subcommittee. “We have done what we can to mitigate this crisis by reducing spending, implementing a hiring freeze,” and other actions.

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee, was skeptical.

Since January 2017, the Trump administration has added bureaucratic red tape, increased costs, and restricted and reduced immigration channels, and the Covid-19 pandemic “has exposed this mismanagement,” she said. “While this reduction in filings contributed to the crisis, USCIS was well on its way to insolvency long before” the pandemic.

Multiple Factors in Play

Lofgren said that since 2016, USCIS has added about 5,000 new employees, as well as proposed an additional 21% fee increase to fund the additional staff and national security vetting. Meanwhile, the backlog of cases pending adjudication remains at 2.5 million.

“This really is not acceptable,” Lofgren said.

USCIS has said it needs $1.2 billion in emergency funds, which Edlow said is “a direct result” of a decrease in petitions and applications during March and April due to the coronavirus and subsequent office closures.

Ranking minority member Ken Buck (R-Colo.) defended the agency’s request. “Congress spends billions of dollars all the time, and you’re asking for really a drop in the bucket” to make sure a “core function of our federal government” continues.

Buck said the agency has continued its work in the face of the pandemic and the resulting office closures and budget shortfalls, citing 106,500 naturalization ceremonies, 87,600 approvals for adjustment of status petitions, and approvals for 130,500 seasonal agricultural guest workers on H-2A visas.

“While delays remain, these numbers show that USCIS takes its mission seriously,” the Colorado congressman said.

While the White House hasn’t formally requested an emergency infusion, the Office of Management and Budget did send a letter of support for such funding to the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which in turn included it in an appropriations relief bill released by Republicans earlier this week.

USCIS projected an annual average deficit of $1.26 billion if revenues didn’t increase when it issued a proposed rule to update the agency’s fees in November.

According to Edlow, however, although the agency was “operating at a deficit for the last several years” it was “in no way in a budget shortfall that would bring about furloughs” until the onset of the pandemic.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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