Citizenship agency charts new course with fiscal challenges

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The head of the U.S. agency that grants citizenship and visas says it's getting a grip on finances that threatened massive furloughs last year and is preparing to propose fees for its services that won't limit legal immigration to the “very wealthy,” a jab at a Trump administration principle that newcomers should be financially self-sufficient.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was on the brink of furloughing nearly 70% of its 20,000 employees in the summer of 2020 when, almost overnight, it declared it would end the year with a large surplus.

USCIS, the acronym by which the agency is known, relies almost entirely on fee collections for a nearly $5 billion annual operation. Reserves at the end of the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 were $1.5 billion, “which is where we want to be,” agency Director Ur Jaddou told The Associated Press in an interview.

A temporary hiring freeze, spending controls and no longer requiring new biometric data for renewal of benefits, introduced in March 2020, helped put the agency on stronger footing, she said.

“I do understand what the problems were and how they’ve been ‘resolved’ — I want to say that in quotes because we have an unsteady situation, but we’re pretty, we’re strong,” Jaddou said.

Trump administration officials have credited last year's return from the financial precipice to higher-than-expected fees collected during the coronavirus pandemic's early months and ending some contracts.

USCIS, which also has a leading role in asylum and refugee resettlement, may be a far less familiar name than other agencies within the Department of Homeland Security, like the Border Patrol, but it is critical to the immigration system. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat then representing a Miami-area district in Congress, said at a hearing on USCIS finances last year that about 70% of calls to her office were related to its work.

The Trump administration brought major change to the agency, including expansion of its fraud investigations unit and an emphasis on insisting immigrants be financially self-sufficient to remain in the country.

Fees on wealthier applicants have long subsidized other operations, like asylum, which doesn't generate revenue. President Joe Biden's administration will soon propose a new fee structure for the agency.

“Number one, we believe the immigration system should not be reserved to the wealthy,” Jaddou said, striking a contrast with the Trump-era mantra of self-sufficiency.

Jaddou, who was born in the San Diego area and was raised by Mexican and Iraqi immigrant parents, was chief counsel at USCIS during President Barack Obama's second term, working alongside Alejandro Mayorkas, a former USCIS director who is now her boss as Homeland Security secretary. During Donald Trump's presidency, she was director of DHS Watch, a group funded by immigration advocacy group America's Voice. She recited key financial and operational metrics from memory during an interview in October 2020 in which she said a fiscal review should be the new USCIS director's first priority.

On Thursday, USCIS released a list of “accomplishments" for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, including naturalized citizenship for 855,000 people, work-based green cards for 172,000 and help for tens of thousands of Afghans and their families who fled after the end of America's 20-year war in their country.

Wait times for citizenship applications grew last year, as they did during Trump's presidency, to about a year. The agency acknowledged a growing backlog for all benefits that recently topped 8 million but pointed to dropping the biometrics requirement for renewals and other efficiency measures as “significant strides.”

More than four months after the Senate approved Jaddou's nomination in a 47-34 vote along party lines, the director is evaluating Trump-era changes, including expansion of the anti-fraud unit and a push to strip citizenship from people who achieved it through lying or fraud.

Jaddou has not reversed a 2018 change in the agency's mission statement that drew heated praise and criticism. Trump appointee Francis Cissna cut reference to the U.S. as a “nation of immigrants.”

"It is something we are working on,” Jaddou said.