July 16, 2020

Senators Warren, Merkley, 13 Senate Democrats Push Back on the Trump Administration’s Anti-Immigrant Agenda in USCIS Funding Debate

“We must both fund USCIS but also put sideboards on the funding we provide to ensure that we are never again put in the unenviable position of rescuing an agency that we intentionally crafted to be primarily fee-funded”

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, DC — United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) joined Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and 13 Senate Democrats on a letter to Senate leadership, calling for funding for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with appropriate guardrails on how that funding is used.

USCIS is projecting a major budget shortfall and is expected to need $1.2 billion in funds from Congress, but the Trump Administration has so far delayed formally requesting these funds. USCIS has said that without funding, it would need to furlough thousands of its workers, which would delay crucial services, including processing employment and family immigrant visa petitions, naturalization applications, and asylum and refugee applications. USCIS’s budget is based on the fees it charges for its services. As the letter notes, the budget shortfall is at least partly due to USCIS’s “mismanagement and dangerous policy choices.”

“We should provide emergency funding, but it is equally critical that we establish firm parameters and sideboards to ensure the funds are used appropriately, not used to intimidate or discourage immigration, and to encourage the agency to develop procedures that will prevent a funding shortfall in the future,” the senators wrote.

The senators insisted that if Congress grants a USCIS request for emergency funds, it must include safeguards to ensure the funding is not used to further the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda. This includes guardrails to prevent USCIS from targeting asylum seekers and other vulnerable immigrants with unaffordable fees, to ensure that the money is not used for deportations or other immigration enforcement activities, and to require measures to increase transparency and fiscal responsibility from the agency.

“We must act now to protect USCIS public servants, who have already begun to receive furlough notices, and are facing the reality of unemployment in a time of economic insecurity caused by the global pandemic. It is important for their livelihood, but also for the livelihood of the communities they serve,” wrote the senators. 

Specifically, the lawmakers urged Senate leaders to include the following guardrails:

  • Require USCIS to implement measures that generate new revenue (such as by expanding premium processing) without new or increased fees on under resourced families or asylum seekers, and facilitate increased filing of applications and petitions.

  • Ensure the availability of fee waivers. USCIS has proposed to eliminate fee waivers for low-income applicants.

  • Prohibit USCIS from transferring funding to enforcement agencies, or from using funds on redundant programs.

  • Require USCIS to adopt measures to increase transparency, fiscal responsibility, and efficiency, such as prohibiting USCIS from using funds to require in-person interviews when it is unnecessary to do so, or denying cases without first issuing requests for evidence or providing opportunities to address problems

  • Require USCIS to provide remote naturalization ceremonies to accommodate people who have been on a lengthy legal pathway to U.S. citizenship during the coronavirus crisis.

Senators Warren and Merkley were joined by Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

This letter is endorsed by FWD.us, United We Dream, International Refugee Assistance Project, American Immigration Lawyers Association, American Immigration Council, Church World Service, the Center for Law and Social Policy, and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

In August 2019, Senators Warren and Markey, with Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), sent a letter to USCIS, expressing their strong opposition to the agency's decision to indefinitely suspend new asylum interviews in the Boston Asylum Sub-Office and re-assign staff to the southern border. Senator Warren also condemned the decision in a statement. In May 2019, she joined Senators Blumenthal and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) expressing concern about USCIS’s long processing time and delays in issuing visas.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Senator Warren, along with her Democratic colleagues, demanded that USCIS provide answers about whether it is granting requests from immigrants with major medical illness, including children, and their families seeking to remain in the United States while receiving lifesaving treatment. She also joined Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Cortez Masto’s letter to USCIS regarding the suspension of in-person citizenship processing and urging USCIS to let eligible immigrants complete the naturalization process using technological solutions. In addition, she joined Senator Klobuchar in asking USCIS to resume expedited processing for employment-based visa applications from foreign physicians.