Looming Immigration Services Shutdown May Fuel Voter Suppression in 2020

Trump’s ghoulish exploitation of the coronavirus pandemic to further his anti-immigrant policies has also manufactured a crisis at the federal agency responsible for green cards, citizenship, asylum and myriad other immigration matters. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is about to run out of money, and if Congress doesn’t act, will furlough more than two-thirds of the USCIS workforce in August. Such a shutdown would further extend the “invisible wall” Trump created to suppress immigration of all kinds. In an election year in which Trump seems determined to use every tool of voter suppression possible, the shutdown of USCIS could mean hundreds of thousands of potential new voters may be denied the ballot.

Trump’s policy changes pre-pandemic were already creating staggering wait times at USCIS, a problem that received congressional scrutiny. But coronavirus, combined with Trump’s exploitation of the crisis to shut down immigration even further, is not only exacerbating the backlog, but is also leading to a 50 percent decrease in fees beginning in March. This has left USCIS, which is almost entirely funded by fees paid by immigrants, in need of a $1.2 billion bailout. Without it, the agency says it will be forced to furlough nearly two-thirds of its entire staff (13,400 of 20,000 employees) on August 3.

When Trump took office, USCIS had a surplus. Less than three years later, the agency finds itself in crisis. Observers of USCIS believe the funding crisis, although exacerbated by coronavirus, is due to mismanagement. Trump repeatedly raided USCIS to fund Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): In 2019 and 2020 USCIS transferred $415.2 million total in revenue to ICE. Under Trump, USCIS enacted a slew of new policies and regulations that both suppress immigration and divert resources and money. For instance, changing regulations regarding who is considered a “public charge” to prevent people from becoming green card holders, suspending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and eliminating Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for hundreds of thousands of people unable to return to their country of nationality due to armed conflict or natural disaster. And the White House suspended the H-1B program — these are visas often employed by wealthy employers like Wall Street and tech firms to hire temporary workers. These visas can cost nearly $6,000 per worker, so the Trump administration’s changes to this program significantly cut into USCIS revenues.

The White House has all but abandoned USCIS, refusing to formally ask Congress for additional funding. This is surely by design; the Trump administration has tried at every turn to shut down immigration to the U.S. Slowing down USCIS and starving it of resources is one way to achieve that.

The collateral damage of this agency operating at one-third of its capacity is incalculable. Before the pandemic, USCIS was naturalizing 3,195 new citizens and granting 2,200 new green cards each day. The agency also makes important, daily decisions on 30,000 applications on issues ranging from asylum to employment authorization. Shutting it down spells disaster for people seeking benefits, and all the more so in light of a historically high backlog acknowledged by USCIS’s own ombudsman. Delays mean people are left waiting for answers on their TPS applications, unable to leave an abusive spouse while they wait for their green card filed under the Violence Against Women Act, or stuck in limbo when they need to renew their DACA status.

The National Association of Immigration Judges expressed deep concern about a USCIS furlough, pointing out that it will create backlogs that “takes months, or even years, to clear.” These backlogs create real-world consequences for those stuck in them. A deportation could be stopped if USCIS processes applications before a critical court date; backlogs put these kinds of reprieves in jeopardy. The result could be the removal of hundreds if not thousands of people who are otherwise eligible for relief.

More troubling, those in ICE detention will have their asylum interviews significantly delayed. In most cases, asylum-seekers cannot even request bond from an immigration judge to be released from ICE detention until they have a pre-screening interview with USCIS. That means that immigrants in detention will face longer wait times in detention facilities with outbreaks of coronavirus. To give you a sense of scale, USCIS decided 114,254 pre-screening cases in 2019 alone.

Another consequence may be that more Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents will take over the asylum pre-screening process, replacing furloughed asylum officers trained on humanitarian issues. The Trump administration was already pushing for more CBP involvement before coronavirus. CBP has a well-documented record of undermining the rights of migrants, physical abuse and manipulation to prevent asylum seekers from accessing humanitarian assistance. For Trump this is likely a feature, not a bug, of a USCIS shutdown.

A USCIS shutdown may also be a means for Trump to suppress the vote. Before this looming furlough, USCIS was facing a backlog of naturalization applications. As of April 2020, USCIS had 697,232 applicants awaiting a decision. That’s 57 percent more than the 442,219 cases that were pending four years ago. If you file your application for naturalization today, you are expected to wait up to three years before getting a decision. You can’t even make an inquiry into your case on the USCIS website if your case is less than three years old.

Before the pandemic, USCIS naturalized tens of thousands of people a month — at convention centers, theaters, holiday celebrations and in office events. After the agency closed on March 18, the backlog for naturalization ceremonies grew by over 3,000 people per day. They reopened to the public in June and began holding smaller, socially distanced ceremonies to swear new citizens in. The agency faces bipartisan pressure to ensure naturalizations can take place. Despite this, USCIS is refusing calls by advocates to implement virtual naturalization ceremonies, even in the midst of the dual crisis of the pandemic and the agency’s budget shortfall.

The people waiting in this backlog are all green card holders, who’ve lived in the U.S. for years, who wish to become United States citizens but are prevented from doing so by bureaucratic dysfunction. Approximately 126,000 people were approved for citizenship and are simply awaiting a naturalization ceremony. These are 126,000 people who completed their interview, passed their English and civics tests, and whose applications were approved. These people could become citizens today — if only USCIS performed the final, ceremonial step.

Many people applied for naturalization in the hopes they could vote in the 2020 election. Two immigrants in Pennsylvania sued USCIS, stating that COVID-related delays would unjustly prevent them from naturalizing before the voter registration deadline. In 2019, USCIS naturalized 834,000 new citizens. This year, due to the pandemic backlog and looming furlough, hundreds of thousands of potential voters may be left out of the electoral process.

The White House likely has a vested interest in preventing immigrants from naturalizing before October voter registration deadlines. After all, given the anti-immigrant agenda Trump has championed in office, he may see these 126,000 people awaiting their naturalization ceremony as the difference between a Trump and Biden victory. Trump won the 2016 election by 79,646 votes in three key states. As of April 1, there are over 134,000 pending applications for naturalization in seven swing states: 66,917 in Florida; 18,574 in Pennsylvania; 10,699 in Arizona; 10,391 in Nevada; 8,769 in Michigan; 8,657 in North Carolina; 7,187 in Ohio; and 2,996 in Wisconsin. In Texas alone, where some polls have even started to show a narrow lead for Biden, there are 73,551 pending applications. In 2020, naturalized citizens make up 10 percent of eligible voters nationwide. Given Trump’s relentless, brutal campaign against immigrants, his full-throated support of white supremacists and his disdain for people of color, it is no stretch of the imagination to think a majority of newly naturalized citizens would vote against him.

A bipartisan bill by Reps. Jeffrey Fortenberry (R-Nebraska) and Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missouri) seeks to provide the $1.2 billion USCIS needs. Negotiations over the needed funding will happen in the coronavirus relief package expected at the end of July. In advance of this, 14 senators led by Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) have pushed for guardrails on the funding, such as barring the transfer of funds to law enforcement, requiring remote naturalization ceremonies and preventing the funding being used to train CBP to take over asylum cases.

If Congress fails to agree to funding and the USCIS shuts down as a result, it will create the perfect storm for voter suppression. Potential new citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to vote simply because of bureaucratic malaise and dysfunction. And the agency’s reluctance to adapt to the pandemic by enacting virtual naturalization ceremonies only compounds the problem. But the agency’s missteps aside, the human cost of failing to fund USCIS is painfully high. Immigrants waiting in USCIS’s gargantuan backlog, including those in ICE detention awaiting asylum interviews, will be forced to wait that much longer in incredibly risky conditions. Congress must act now to prevent a furlough.