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agency Immigration

Immigration Agency That Issues Visas, Green Cards Struggles to Stay Afloat – The New York Times

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has asked Congress for a lifeline amid the coronavirus pandemic that has caused applications to plummet and brought it to the brink of insolvency.

Credit…Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Miriam Jordan

LOS ANGELES — A precipitous drop in applications for green cards, citizenship and other programs has threatened the solvency of the federal agency that administers the country’s lawful immigration system, prompting it to seek a $1.2 billion cash infusion from Congress as well as fee hikes to stay afloat.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which relies on the fees that it charges applicants to fund its operations, said that it could run out of money by the summer because the coronavirus pandemic had resulted in far fewer people applying for visas and other benefits.

“Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, U.S.C.I.S. has seen a dramatic decrease in revenue,” said a spokesman for the agency, noting that its receipts could plummet by more than 60 percent by the close of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Without the $1.2 billion injection from Congress, the agency, he said, would be unable to fund its operations in a matter of months. The agency plans to impose a 10 percent “surcharge” on applications, on top of previously proposed increases, that it is expecting to implement in the coming months.

Critics blamed the Trump administration’s stringent policies, which have caused backlogs, red tape and application denials to skyrocket, for dissuading an untold number of people from applying for visas and other immigration benefits.

“This administration is asking taxpayers to bail out an agency as a result of the very policies it put in place which have caused revenue loss,” said Melissa Rodgers, the director of programs at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco.

“With extreme vetting, they are making every single application take longer to review, and processing fewer,” said Ms. Rodgers, who oversees a program to promote citizenship among legal immigrants. “Word gets out that it’s not worth applying.”

Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, an immigration hard-liner who is acting deputy secretary for the Department of Homeland Security and at the helm of the agency, has stressed upholding immigration laws over granting visas and citizenship as the agency’s mission. “We are not a benefit agency, we are a vetting agency,” he has said.

Last summer, Mr. Cuccinelli announced a “public charge” rule that denied immigrants green cards if they were deemed likely to use government benefit programs like food stamps and subsidized housing, a move that is believed to have deterred many people from applying. The reason: Applying for legal permanent residency in itself could be considered a negative factor by immigration officers when determining whether a person could become a public charge.

Some critics said that the agency was ill-prepared for the economic shock from the coronavirus pandemic because of policies that had rendered its adjudication process less efficient while bloating its payroll.

Since President Trump took office, the agency, for example, has bolstered resources devoted to fraud detection as well as added new requirements for in-person interviews for hundreds of thousands of employment- and marriage-based green card applicants.

It also has been returning large numbers of visa applications with “requests for further evidence” of eligibility, which adjudicators must then review again. Extensions for H-1B visas, issued to skilled workers already in the United States, are now reviewed from scratch, as if the person is a first-time applicant.

“This administration has made every single application much more expensive and time-consuming to adjudicate,” said Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama administration.

In fiscal year 2016, the agency had 15,828 positions, including full-time and contract workers. Three years later, that number had climbed to almost 18,866, a 19 percent increase.

“If they had kept the same staff levels and not put in place these policies, would they still have run out of cash — maybe not,” said Mr. Rand, a founder of Boundless Immigration, a technology company in Seattle that helps people apply for green cards and citizenship.

As in previous years, Citizenship and Immigration Services in fiscal 2020 had counted on fees paid by applicants to cover the lion’s share of its expenditures: 97 percent of its $4.8 billion budget.

But after applications took a nosedive, the agency, the spokesman said, was seeking “a one-time emergency request for funding to ensure we can carry out our mission of administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and protecting the American people.”

The agency already had been trying to limit spending to paying salaries and critical expenses to avert a financial crisis, he said, and would have to take further “drastic actions,” which he did not specify, to keep operating. Those could include staff reductions that would affect the adjudication of citizenship, green cards, asylum and work visas.

The agency has not released data that attests to the decrease in applications. But an officer at the agency, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to talk to the news media, said that the staff had been notified recently that the agency was “severely strapped for cash due to the low number of new applications being filed,” adding that overtime, travel and purchases had been scrapped.

Ana Maria Schwartz, an immigration lawyer in Houston, said that half as many clients had retained her to apply for green cards, citizenship and other immigration benefits between March 15 and May 15 compared with the same period in 2019. “That’s a seismic shift, even for my tiny firm,” she said.

In November last year, the agency’s leadership proposed steep increases in fees to file for legal immigration and naturalization. For the first time, the agency would also charge those fleeing persecution and seeking protection in the United States.

Mr. Cuccinelli, the agency’s chief, said that the fee hikes would help cover the agency’s deficits.

Immigrant advocates balked at the justification, saying that the goal was to reduce the number of immigrants who become citizens before the 2020 presidential election and, more broadly, cut legal immigration by making fees prohibitive for low-income people.

The fee assessed on petitions for naturalization would jump more than 60 percent, to $1,170 from $725, for most applicants. The government would also begin charging asylum seekers $50 for applications and $490 for work permits, which would make the United States one of just four countries to charge people for asylum.

The government also announced its intention to increase the cost of renewals for hundreds of thousands of participants of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. They would be required to pay $765, rather than $495.

Thus far, the fees have remained unchanged. The government has issued three public notices about them in the Federal Register, attracting more than 40,000 public comments that it is mandated to review and consider before announcing a final rule.

“The administration turned the fee changes into a hyper ideological policy vehicle that slowed them down,” Mr. Rand said.

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agency Federal

Federal agency says removal of vaccine chief may have been retaliation – CNN

(CNN)The investigative office reviewing the whistleblower complaint of former federal vaccine chief Dr. Richard Bright has determined there is reason to believe he had been removed as retaliation, Bright’s lawyers said Friday.

The office is recommending he be reinstated during the investigation, the lawyers said. Bright had led the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority since 2016 when he was reassigned last month to a narrower position at the National Institutes of Health.
The Office of Special Counsel “advised that in light of this determination, it would contact the Department of Health and Human Services (‘HHS’) to request that it stay Dr. Bright’s removal as Director of BARDA for 45 days to allow OSC sufficient time to complete its investigation of Bright’s allegations,” Bright’s lawyers said in a statement.
“This is a personnel matter that is currently under review. However, HHS strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations in the complaint from Dr. Bright,” said Caitlin Oakley, an HHS spokeswoman.
Bright filed a whistleblower complaint earlier this week, alleging that his early warnings about the coronavirus were ignored and that his reluctance to make “potentially harmful drugs” available for treating Covid-19, including hydroxychloroquine, eventually led to his firing.
“I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions over the opinions of the best scientists we have in government,” Bright told reporters on Tuesday.
Bright said in the complaint he raised urgent concerns about shortages of critical supplies, including masks, to his superiors in the Trump administration but was met with skepticism and surprise.
President Donald Trump said Friday that Bright “seems like a disgruntled employee” and has previously alleged Bright is seeking to help Democrats by filing a whistleblower complaint.
“If people are that unhappy, you shouldn’t work,” Trump said Friday. “To me, he’s a disgruntled guy and I hadn’t heard great things about him.”
The administration has maintained that Bright was moved to the new National Institutes of Health role to work on testing. An HHS spokesperson told CNN on Tuesday that the administration is “deeply disappointed” Bright has not taken up his new role yet, but Bright’s representatives say he has not been given any details about the position.
Bright is slated to testify on Capitol Hill next Thursday.
His decision to go public with his concerns last month exposed months of turmoil inside one of the key divisions at HHS charged with responding to the coronavirus pandemic. His allegations raised serious questions about political bias creeping into the government’s response to the pandemic and the extent to which Trump’s preferences for a drug overshadowed its scientific merits.
In his whistleblower complaint, Bright says he raised concerns about US preparedness for coronavirus starting in January but was met with “indifference which then developed into hostility” by leaders at HHS.
After he initially aired his complaints, administration officials leveled a range of allegations against Bright, including accusing him of poorly managing his office, mistreating staff and failing to consult his superiors on consequential decisions. But Bright’s most recent performance review, from May 2019, a copy of which was obtained by CNN, delivered rave reviews for his management of his office and included no criticisms.
His attorneys argue that Bright’s removal from his post amounts to a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act, claiming that Bright “has engaged in numerous instances of protected activity.”
In the complaint, he says he is seeking reinstatement as BARDA’s director and asking for a full investigation.
This story has been updated with additional background information.

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