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Why Democrats should welcome the latest conservative plan to keep DHS open

With a Department of Homeland Security shutdown looming, there's still no indication that either Republicans or Democrats in Congress have any new ideas about how to pass a funding bill. Republicans are maintaining that any bill funding DHS needs to block President Obama's executive actions on immigration (some of which have been temporarily put on hold by a federal court), while Democrats are insisting on a "clean" funding bill without caveats. With no break in the deadlock, people outside Congress are stepping in with their own ideas.

Most recently, the editors of influential conservative magazine National Review suggest, in an editorial, that Republicans prevent a full DHS shutdown by splitting the bill in two:

The House can offer to fund most of DHS in one bill, and the federal immigration bureaucracy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in another, with the latter bill blocking the president’s November amnesty. This would narrow the debate and make it much harder for Democrats to argue that the Republican plan is inappropriate or risky.

The National Review editors see this as a win-win: Republicans in Congress could still have a legislative fight over the president's executive actions, but without the risk of shutting down homeland security. In their view, funding US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which regulates legal immigration into the US — and would also be the agency in charge of granting protection from deportation to the millions of immigrants who apply for relief under the president's executive actions — is "not as politically vital" as keeping the rest of the department open.

But if there's little downside for Republicans in letting USCIS go unfunded, there's no downside for Democrats whatsoever. Here's the problem: the overwhelming majority of USCIS isn't funded by Congress. The agency is almost entirely self-funded. It runs off the fees that immigrants pay when they submit applications to get or renew legal status (or deferred action), or to become citizens.

That's why Republicans haven't been able to straightforwardly "defund" Obama's executive actions through the budget: they weren't funding them to begin with. And they aren't funding most of the rest of the agency, either.

There's one big exception: Congress is responsible for giving USCIS money to run the E-Verify program, which checks whether new hires at over 500,000 American companies are legally authorized to work in the US. But Republicans have been the ones championing E-Verify, and pushing to make it mandatory: earlier this month, the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill to require all employers to use E-Verify. (The committee has passed similar bills the past two Congresses.) Democrats have no particular love for E-Verify. So if USCIS goes unfunded, the only casualty will be the part of the agency that Republicans want to expand.

Fee-funding USCIS is bad policy, but insulates it politically

From a policy perspective, it isn't actually a good thing that USCIS is responsible for funding itself through application fees. It's been a big obstacle, for example, for the president's first deferred action program (the one that's currently up and running), for young immigrants who came to the US as children or teenagers. Among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who could apply for protection from deportation, but are choosing to stay in the shadows instead, the $465 application fee is one of the biggest obstacles. Even immigrants who did apply for deferred action took an average of three months to save up the funds before applying — which has raised concerns about how they'll be able to afford another $465 two years later, to renew their deferred-action status. (As of this year, people applying for or renewing deferred action are protected for three years.)

Arguably, the problem is even bigger for legal immigrants — and that should worry both parties. It costs $680 for green-card holders to become US citizens — after all the money they've spent to get to that point. That's probably one of the most significant obstacles holding people back from applying for citizenship.

Fee-funding has made it harder for the agency to function at times: an immigrant who applied for citizenship in summer 2007, for example, had to wait a projected 16 to 18 months for her application to be processed. Backlogs force the agency into the difficult position of having to raise fees on future applicants, just to have the money to move current applicants through the queue. But fee-funding is also an insult to America's heritage as a nation of immigrants. In a country where both parties claim to welcome legal immigration, and want to encourage immigrants to become citizens and integrate fully into American politics and society, it should be alarming that some immigrants won't become citizens simply because they can't afford to help fund a government agency.

On the other hand, as the current shutdown fight shows, there's a very important silver lining for USCIS in being fee-funded: it's insulated from the whims of politics. Green-card holders who want to become citizens won't have to rest their hopes on whether Democrats and Republicans can work something out over the president's executive actions to protect unauthorized immigrants. And that's a good thing.