By Kalpana V. Peddibhotla and Desire Lance. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected immigration into the U.S. on a number of fronts. Due to economic uncertainty, companies are less willing to initiate the transfer or hire of foreign nationals. As travel restrictions linger and U.S. Consulate services are suspended, it is difficult for foreign nationals to obtain the necessary work visas abroad and then travel into the United States. Moreover, with President Trump’s recent executive order postponing the issuance of immigrant visas to certain individuals abroad, companies and families are dissuaded from initiating new immigration-based applications with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
USCIS is a fee-funded agency, charging applicants and petitioners requesting an immigration benefit a fee to fund the cost of adjudicating the application. Due to the discouragement of immigration to the United States through executive orders, suspension of services and travel restrictions, USCIS has noticed a decrease in application numbers and thereby a decrease in fees paid to the agency. Since President Trump took office and between the end of fiscal years 2017 and 2019, USCIS has received nearly 900,000 fewer petitions. In addition to fewer applications, USCIS also suspended premium processing for qualifying petitions at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  With a $1,440 filing fee associated with the premium processing option, this also contributes to the loss in revenue for USCIS. Moreover, immigration practitioners have experienced an increase in Requests for Evidence (RFE) issued, not only demanding more time of applicants but also of USCIS adjudicators. Increased number of RFEs and policies such as requiring all employment-based immigrant applicants to attend an interview are contributing to the operating cost increases for USCIS. Many of these actions were taken by the Trump Administration without evidence that it correlated to safeguarding our immigration system from fraudulent petitions or improving our national security. Instead we posit that these actions have simply created bureaucratic hurdles and unnecessarily increased the cost of administering our immigration laws.
As a fee-based federal agency with decreasing applications, USCIS is now facing drastic financial shortfalls. USCIS could become insolvent by the end of this summer and a spokesperson for the agency noted that receipts are expected to be down approximately 60 percent.
In requesting a one-time $1.2 billion injection by Congress, the financial burden of operating USCIS is shifting, with support coming from federal funds instead of application fees. USCIS is proposing a 10% surcharge on application fees to offset the funds received from the federal government. However, this would be on top of already planned fee increases, making filing fees significantly more.
An initial petition for a company to transfer an executive employee from its foreign operations to a U.S. office could cost a company over $6,000 in filing fees, which does not include legal fees associated with the process. Without permanent leadership since last year, USCIS operations are suffering and the agency is unable to meet its financial obligations. The lack of consistent governance has contributed to the agency’s inefficiency and is potentially rendering USCIS insolvent. For an Administration that has made governance of our immigration laws a cornerstone of its policies, it is remarkable that we have not had consistent and permanent leadership heading up the agency that governs legal immigration to the U.S. If all USCIS activities were halted due to funding, legal immigration could cease to exist.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already made a significant mark on the immigration process. With all of this, there will be a lasting impact on the willingness of foreign nationals to start new businesses in the United States, which is what our economy needs the most right now, financial stimulation and creation of U.S.-based jobs. There is no evidence that the above actions taken has safeguarded U.S. jobs, but instead has contributed to the inefficiency and financial instability of USCIS.