In 2000, Mohammad Esseck moved with his wife and 3-year-old son from South Africa to North Carolina for a teacher exchange program. The schools asked them to stay and continue teaching in the United States. The couple earned advanced degrees, had another child, and began building a life. In 2010, they applied for permanent residency, and earlier this year, Esseck, now teaching at a community college in Raleigh, began the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
This spring, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) told Congress that reduced immigration meant it needed emergency funding to avoid furloughing most of its staff. The request triggered a standoff between lawmakers who want more accountability before providing funds and USCIS, which says the furloughs will begin on Aug. 30. Caught in the middle are people like Esseck.
USCIS processes citizenship applications, dispenses green cards to permanent residents, and approves international adoptions, among other duties. Unlike other government agencies, USCIS relies on application fees for revenue instead of appropriations from Congress. The Trump administration has raised the standards for legal immigrants, resulting in fewer visas issued and an even greater backlog of cases. At the same time, the agency has increased fraud detection efforts and hired new staff to enforce them.
In May, USCIS informed Congress that the pandemic had caused “an alarming drop in applications at the end of March.” The agency estimated it would receive 61 percent fewer applications and petitions this fiscal year and would need emergency funding of $1.2 billion. USCIS promised to pay back Congress using revenue from a 10 percent surcharge in application fees. Without the funds, USCIS said it would have to furlough 13,400 employees, about 70 percent of its workforce.
In late June, USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow warned that furloughs would begin on Aug. 3. But then on July 21, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and another committee member reported that USCIS “currently projects to end the fiscal year with a surplus and a sufficient balance to pay its employees for the remainder of the fiscal year,” which ends Sept. 30. The senators urged the agency’s leadership to abandon the planned furloughs, especially in light of pandemic-induced high unemployment. In response, the agency pushed back the date to Aug. 30.
USCIS did not directly answer my question when I asked why the furloughs were necessary despite the budget surplus. An agency spokesperson said that beginning a fiscal year always requires some carryover in funds. But Leahy published another letter on Tuesday that said, “USCIS could pay all of its staff through the end of the fiscal year, avoid furloughs entirely, and still end the fiscal year with a sizable carryover balance.”
Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy at World Relief, warned that the agency’s plans could choke the flow of immigration even more: “These dramatic furloughs of most USCIS staff will be one more action to dramatically restrict legal immigration—and it’s hard not to wonder if that’s actually the goal.”
Pre-pandemic policies had already triggered a decline in applications, with 1 million fewer petitions in fiscal year 2018 than the previous year. In November 2019, the agency forecast a budget deficit and increased or added application fees to help. During a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship on July 29, committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., summarized the situation: “The agency is forcing customers to ... pay even more for slower services. This really is not acceptable.” She pointed out that the agency had a backlog of 2.5 million cases at the time.
Soerens has seen the situation play out: In 2006, he would tell immigrants that the naturalization process took six months and cost $400, but now it can take more than two years and cost $700, soon to be $1,160. “As people experience poorer service at a higher cost, fewer people are motivated to apply—which means fewer fees to sustain USCIS,” he said.
Soerens wants Christians to prioritize a functional legal immigration system. “It allows us to offer refuge to those persecuted for their faith. … It allows families to be reunited so that children can be raised by both a father and a mother living in the same country, and it also spurs economic growth,” he said, adding that a burdensome legal system incentivizes illegal immigration.
Esseck said the situation “creates deep anxiety on many levels.” His employment depends on a renewed green card or citizenship by Sept. 20. His children and a sister who lives in South Africa depend on his employment.
“What’s frustrating, I must say, is that it’s become a political football,” Esseck said. “You’re playing with people’s lives, with people’s futures.”