Less than a year after it was on the verge of laying off about 70% of employees to fill a funding gap, the U.S. agency that grants citizenship, green cards and temporary visas wants to improve service without a detailed plan for it. pay, including the granting of exemptions. for those who cannot afford the fees, according to a proposal obtained by The Associated Press.
The Department of Homeland Security sent its 14-page plan to improve procedures to become a naturalized citizen to the White House for approval on April 21, and it involves the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of Homeland Security and operates entirely on expense, without funding from Congress.
The plan outlines short- and long-term changes that reflect “a realistic assessment of our aspirations and limitations,” including more videos instead of in-person interviews with candidates, allowing employees to take an oath of office. citizenship instead of having to rely on federal judges and the promotion of online filing to reduce processing times.
Homeland Security says anything can be done without the approval of Congress, where the immigration consensus has been elusive for years.
Taken together, the changes mark a complete break with the Trump administration, when the agency focused on tackling fraud and adjusting to reducing immigration benefits, such as the end of the program. deferred action for arrivals of children to protect young people from deportation.
The plan is also intended to give potential American citizens the benefit of the doubt. For example, he specifies that an immigrant who registers by mistake to vote in the American elections before becoming a citizen will not be punished. Doing so now can result in deportation or criminal charges, possibly ending a person’s chance to obtain citizenship.
The issue has been in the spotlight amid a recent wave of automatic voter registration and repeated unsubstantiated claims by former President Donald Trump that millions of people voted illegally in 2016. Last year, Illinois’ automatic voter registration program mistakenly registered hundreds of people who declared they were not U.S. citizens. At least one has voted.
The document which aims to improve the citizenship process is designed to “encourage full participation in our civic and democratic life” and to provide services effectively and efficiently.
It does not provide any cost estimates for any of the proposed changes, although some measures appear to be designed to save money and achieve efficiency gains. He also recognizes that success depends on long-term financial stability, which involves asking Congress for money.
As part of the plan, the agency would continue to subsidize citizenship fees to ensure the process is accessible to as many people as possible. Guidelines on fee waivers would be consistent and transparent, he said.
The administration “recognizes that the cost of fees may be a barrier for some people applying for naturalization and is committed to providing affordable naturalizations,” the document said. “This will mean that other paying applicants and petitioners will continue to fund this policy. Decision to ensure full cost recovery.”
The White House and Homeland Security Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Budget challenges came to a head last summer when the agency threatened more than 13,000 vacation days to deal with a $ 1.26 billion shortfall. But a few months later, he said he didn’t need the money after all and would end the year with a surplus. The agency’s acting director, Joseph Edlow, said filing fees rebounded more than expected as offices reopened following coronavirus closings and contracts were reviewed for cost savings.
The expected shortfall first emerged in November 2019, when the agency major fee increases proposed – long before COVID-19 threatened finances.
The fiscal boost has raised doubts about how the agency’s finances deteriorated so quickly and then suddenly recovered. Ur Jaddou, who was appointed by President Joe Biden in April to head the agency, was among those with questions.
Jaddou, who was the agency’s senior lawyer under President Barack Obama, said in October that the agency needed a financial audit. She questioned some changes under the Trump administration, including the rationale for a major expansion of an anti-fraud unit and the obligation, since abandoned by Biden, to reject applications leaving blank spaces.
“It really is a bunch of bureaucratic hassle,” she said, discussing the agency’s financial problems.
Fees were expected to increase by an average of 20% last October, but a federal judge blocked a few days before their entry into force. The fees to become a naturalized citizen were to drop from $ 640 to $ 1,170. Fee waivers were to be largely eliminated for those who could not afford to apply.
Other Trump-era fee changes that were stopped included an initial refugee claim charge of $ 50. Asylum seekers are also expected to pay $ 550 if they apply for a work permit and $ 30 for biometric data collection.
the wait to process an application for citizenship rose to more than a year at the end of Trump’s presidency, down from less than eight months four years earlier.
Elliot Spagat and Sophia Tareen, The Associated Press