clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A US immigration agency could run out of money by the end of summer without a $1.2 billion bailout

US Citizenship and Immigration Services is facing a massive budget shortfall because fewer immigrants are applying to enter the US.

A sign indicates a USCIS office in Washington state is closed due to the coronavirus.
A sign indicating a US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office is closed because of an employee who may be infected with the novel coronavirus in Tukwila, Washington on March 3.
Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is asking Congress for a $1.2 billion bailout. The agency claims it will run out of money by the end of the summer without aid due to a decline in immigration caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Unlike other federal agencies, USCIS receives almost no taxpayer dollars, and is dependent on fees associated with filing applications for green cards, visas, work permits, US citizenship, and humanitarian benefits such as asylum. The pandemic has already brought on a “dramatic decrease” in its revenue that is only likely to worsen as applications are estimated to drop by about 61 percent through September, an agency spokesperson said. President Donald Trump’s restrictions on immigration, other countries’ restrictions on travel and the fact that necessary government offices aren’t open to process applications have all contributed to this decline.

To mitigate the budget shortfall, USCIS is planning to implement an additional 10 percent surcharge on all applications and sought Congress’s help on Friday, Buzzfeed’s Hamed Aleaziz first reported. The agency has also already limited spending to salary and mission-critical activities, but “without congressional intervention, USCIS will have to take drastic actions to keep the agency afloat,” the spokesperson said.

Why USCIS is facing a funding shortfall

Immigration has come nearly to a standstill over the past two months. The Trump administration has shuttered USCIS offices, closed consulates abroad, shut down the borders with Canada and Mexico and imposed a 60-day ban on the issuance of new green cards. Asylum processing at the southern border has also practically stopped, as Trump administration officials implemented a program to rapidly return migrants to Mexico without so much as a health exam.

While brought on by the pandemic, this kind of decrease in legal immigration is what Trump has long sought. He has railed against what he calls “chain migration,” referring to US citizens or permanent residents who sponsor their immigrant family members for visas and green cards. And he has sought to keep poor immigrants out by proposing to reject those who don’t have health insurance or who might use public benefits in the future. (Courts have blocked the restrictions on immigrants without health insurance from going into effect for now, but the policy affecting immigrants who might go on public benefits went into effect in February.)

USCIS hasn’t released data on how many applications it has received since the pandemic started, but has acknowledged applications are on the decline. The latest available comprehensive data, from October 2019 to December 2019, had actually shown a spike in applications — more than 1.9 million, as compared to 1.7 million in the preceding three months.

Applications dipped in March as compared to the same month last year across several temporary visa categories, including visas for people transferring within a multinational company, those who show extraordinary ability or achievement in particular industries, athletes, entertainers, and religious workers. It’s likely that applications plunged even further in April as the US instituted immigration restrictions and stay-at-home orders, and as economic opportunities dried up.

USCIS’s funding shortfall could be exacerbated as Trump weighs additional restrictions on temporary visa holders in the coming weeks. The New York Times reported that he is considering barring the issuance of new employment-based visas, such as H-1B visas for skilled workers and H-2B visas for seasonal non-agricultural workers, as well as ending a program that allows foreign students to work in the US for up to three years post-graduation.