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Agency Officials Defend Biden's Proposed Hiring Surges to Congress

USCIS, for example, says it cannot respond to immigration emergencies without more staff.

Biden administration officials on Wednesday defended their requests to massively increase their workforces, telling lawmakers they could no longer accomplish their missions without more manpower. 

For U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, Director Ur Jaddou said her agency needs to not just bring on thousands of new staff, but also overhaul the way it is funded. USCIS has been primarily funded through the fees it collects from immigrants since its founding, but Jaddou told the Homeland Security panel of the House Appropriations Committee that its humanitarian mission had grown too large to realistically execute all its tasks without congressional appropriations. In addition to calling for thousands of new positions over the next two years, President Biden in his recent budget proposal called for a six-fold increase for the agency compared to fiscal 2021. 

Jaddou said USCIS is still digging out from the vacancies that piled up during a year-long hiring freeze under the Trump administration, but was optimistic funding from the fiscal 2022 omnibus and a new hiring plan would allow the agency to onboard 3,500 employees by the end of September. Even fulfilling that ambitious goal would only fill 95% of current slots and not account for the added growth the agency anticipates. 

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee, called the vacancies at USCIS the agency’s “biggest challenge” and said she was disappointed it had yet to make more progress on filling them. She added USCIS would not be able to accomplish all it has set out to do without improving the morale within the workforce. Jaddou said her approach on vacancies has included luring back those who left during the Trump administration, potentially pursuing direct hire authority, finding efficiencies in the hiring process and setting specific targets.

Jaddou said it “rocked everybody’s morale” when the Trump administration sent furlough notices to most of the USCIS workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a financial crisis and noted she is still seeing the “reverberating effects” of that threat. Getting the agency’s fiscal house in order will play a key role in turning that around, she predicted. 

Boosting the workforce will also help USCIS become a more agile agency, Jaddou said. Its employees are often called upon to confront emergencies, including upticks of migrants at the border and the influx of evacuees seeking entrance from Afghanistan. Just this week, according to an email obtained by Government Executive, USCIS solicited a new tranche of volunteers within the agency to work on requests for parole from Afghan evacuees and reunifying families separated during the Trump administration. 

“The goal is to keep hiring enough so when we have these new demands on these resources, we do have the capability to expand without affecting things that are already on our plate,” Jaddou said. When deployments occur, she added, USCIS is looking to be “not always robbing from Peter to pay Paul, and adding to the backlogs.”

Case backlogs at the agency remain at record highs, with 8.5 million total pending cases and 5.3 million that have been languishing for longer than the slotted period of time. USCIS has stressed that hiring new employees would allow the agency to address backlogs for asylum claims, work authorizations, naturalizations and other immigration benefit cases. It would also assist in refugee processing. 

USCIS is currently weighing what responsibilities it may take on due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Jaddou said, after Biden announced the U.S. will welcome 100,000 Ukrainians. The administration has yet to spell out all of the legal pathways those individuals will be able to pursue, though it will include the refugee process. The agency is also anticipating a role in processing an anticipated uptick in immigrants at the border when the Biden administration lifts the Title 42 authority that has largely blocked individuals from seeking asylum during the pandemic. Applicants through humanitarian programs, such as those seeking asylum and refugee status, do not pay fees. 

“We don’t see an end in sight to the hiring,” Jaddou said. 

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., questioned the proposed funding shift and need for hiring, saying it could lead to more layers of bureaucracy and diversion from core tasks. 

“We should be very cautious about shifting the burden of these services away from individual fee payers,” Fleischmann said. 

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan pushed back on Republican resistance to the agency’s call for nearly 2,000 new employees. EPA received $60 billion through the infrastructure law that Biden signed into law last year, but that money went to plus up existing programs and not specifically for personnel. 

“We need more bodies to help manage those programs and to help push that money through into the states,” said Regan. In addition to the infrastructure influx, EPA is looking to grow its discretionary budget by more than 30% over its fiscal 2021 level. 

Asked by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W. Va., if some of that hiring may only be temporary since the $60 billion in spending is set to last five years, Regan said he anticipates EPA’s contribution to improving the nation’s infrastructure would last far beyond that timeline.