Lawmakers say the closings would disrupt key services, though agency promises a smooth transition.
A group of House Democrats is moving swiftly in an attempt to block the Trump administration from proceeding with its plans to close citizenship services offices located overseas.
Reps. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., and Chuy Garcia, D-Ill., are circulating a letter to their colleagues in hopes of legislatively prohibiting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from closing its two-dozen offices located across 22 countries. The closures first came to light this week after USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna informed staff of the agency’s plans.
USCIS sought to downplay the impact of the decision, saying the closures would only shift resources around. Jessica Collins, an agency spokeswoman, said USCIS will work closely with the departments of Homeland Security and State “to coordinate necessary interagency agreements to ensure no interruption in the provision of immigration services to affected applicants and petitioners.”
Espaillat and Garcia took issue with that assessment, saying the closures would directly impact work such as assisting with refugee and asylum cases, helping Americans who are adopting children from abroad and processing applications to reunite families. Collins, who described the closures as in “preliminary discussions,” said USCIS is working to ensure operations “continue uninterrupted under such a transition.”
“The workload itself would simply shift to the U.S. for processing or happen through regional visits, and the State Department would provide certain services that they already provide in 200-plus locations,” Collins said. “This is simply a change in where the work is done and who the work is done by.”
Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget released this week made no mention of the closures, but proposed slashing the State Department’s funding by 23 percent. The budget would also impose a 10 percent surcharge on immigration filing fees, but the administration proposed contributing all of those resources—about $5 billion over 10 years—to deficit reduction.
USCIS estimated the closures would save millions of dollars, which would be reallocated, in part, to addressing backlogs in the immigration system. Espaillat and Garcia argued that the fiscal 2019 spending bill that President Trump signed into law last year already provided a boost in funding for USCIS to process cases and slash the buildup of unresolved applications and suggested the administration was creating a “false choice.”
“It is clear that this is just another part of the Trump Administration’s broader xenophobic goal of reducing legal immigration,” the lawmakers said.
They asked for support in drafting a letter to appropriators to again increase funding aimed at reducing USCIS and immigration court backlogs. The next funding bill should also include language that prevents the closure of the international offices, they said. The agency is largely fee-funded, however, potentially complicating the lawmakers’ efforts.
About 70 USCIS employees currently work at international field offices; the agency would return them to domestic offices if the plan is finalized. The agency promised a smooth transition for the affected workers and said the change would better align its resources with current operational realities.
The lawmakers are still waiting to see how many colleagues sign on to the letter, but have already heard some interest. Details on the precise mechanisms they will use in their attempt to block closures are still under discussion.
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