It’s no secret that President Trump failed to deliver on his 2016 promise to build his wall across the U.S-Mexico border. And the president kicked off his 2020 general-election campaign in equally bad faith last month by turning a naturalization ceremony into a re-election prop, and even failing to inform all the participants that they’d appear in a partisan event viewed by millions.
The spectacle was Trump’s latest attempt to brand himself as tough on illegal immigration, but welcoming of those who “come in the right way.” But turn off the cameras and pull back the curtain, and you’ll find a wall of red tape designed to keep legal immigrants out.
Just days before the Republican convention, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was ready to furlough nearly 70 percent of its staff to avoid a financial shortfall, a move that would have slowed the processing of immigration petitions to a trickle. But even after news broke that the agency miscalculated and had a modest surplus to last to the end of the fiscal year, Congress needed to twist the agency’s arm to avert cuts at the eleventh hour. Now, even with the furloughs called off, USCIS warns it will slow down services and may still cut staffing next fiscal year in order to stay afloat. Yet even with these looming cuts, USCIS has proposed new plans for “continuous immigration vetting,” requiring petitioners to submit their DNA and other biometric information.
In other words, USCIS insists it has the resources to expand vetting, but not to maintain services for the millions of people who apply for citizenship, work permits, and other benefits each year. Even more troubling is the fact that USCIS operates almost entirely on user fees, and this is just the latest example of the agency spending applicant’s money on bureaucratic hurdles that wall them off from the American dream.
For example, last fall the agency quietly rolled out a policy to reject applications if a space is left blank—even if the field is not applicable to the petitioner. So if you’re an applicant with no middle name, apartment number, or prior spouses to list, you must write “N/A” in all those fields or be rejected. If your child has no employment history, it’s not enough to write “N/A,” in the employment field alone—you must also fill in the blank dates. Make sure you’re writing “N/A,” and not “NA,” or you could still be declined. While the no-blank policy itself officially targets asylum seekers and undocumented crime victims, lawyers have reported that other applications have been rejected on these grounds.
Immigration attorney Nathan Brown says that Congress granted USCIS enormous leeway in deciding how immigration applications are prepared, but now the agency is using this discretion to create what he calls “a bizarre data entry obstacle course.” “Applicants who clearly qualify under the law are getting turned away for absurd reasons,” Brown tells me. “I’ve talked to doctors, engineers, very smart people who’ve tried to prepare applications on their own and they give up and come to me because the instructions are so poorly written and the process seems unintelligible.”
Other sources of waste are less overt and operate under pretenses that might seem valid, such as investigating fraud. Three years ago, USCIS began requiring staff to completely reinvestigate applications for visa extensions, even if nothing about the cases had changed. A few months later, the agency forced green card applicants who had already been rigorously screened to sit through time-consuming in-person interviews. These policies are a major reason why USCIS processing costs for the five most common forms it receives increased by $503 million between 2016-2019.
These costs are likely to balloon to even higher levels if other Trump administration policies take full effect. One of the most sweeping of these is the president’s public charge rule, which adds new forms that take roughly 18 hours to complete and doubles green card paperwork. The policy attempts to assess an applicant’s likelihood of welfare use as a basis for denial. But before the rule, petitioners were already required to demonstrate that they have the financial resources to support any family members they sponsor. Houston-based immigration attorney Emily Neumann revealed that the public charge rule and other USCIS requirements resulted in her submitting 78 pages of documents with 14 signatures for one client. USCIS staff will be tasked with scrutinizing these applications.
All of the new waste clogging the system has caused net processing times to surge by 25 percent between fiscal years 2017 and 2019. Such delays disrupt the livelihoods of U.S. citizens and immigrants alike. Take the experience of Patrick and Liza Stifter, a St. Louis couple who married in July 2018. Liza, who was born in Ukraine, petitioned for a permit to legally work while her green card petition was pending. The forms say that applicants should receive their work permits within 90 days. The Stifters waited nine months. Patrick, who was starting optometry school, recounted the difficulty of Liza being unable to work. “We barely scraped by off my part-time job and student loans,” he told me.
But processing has grown even slower since mid-June, when USCIS literally shut off numerous green card and work permit printers after canceling contracts with vendors to save money. As a result, USCIS failed to print thousands of documents that had already been approved, causing many legal immigrants to become undocumented as their papers expired.
Afterward, USCIS proceeded to charge applicants more for worse service, jacking up fees in an effort to raise $1.2 billion dollars. Come October, marriage-based green card fees will jump from $1,760 to $2,830 and naturalizations from $725 to $1,170. These excessive fee hikes could likely backfire by pricing out applicants. But even if these projections are correct, the agency won’t even specify what it intends to do with 64 percent of its added revenue and made no promises of using any of it to improve services
There’s an old adage that you should never attribute to malevolence what can best be explained by stupidity. But there comes a point where the distinction hardly matters anymore, and it’s reasonable to wonder if the people in charge are weaponizing bureaucratic incompetence to achieve their own malicious ends.