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By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the government agency that oversees lawful immigration to the United States. Its International Operations Division is the component of the agency’s Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate responsible for things like reuniting families, enabling international adoptions, considering parole requests for humanitarian reasons, and providing information services and travel documents to people around the world. The Trump administration is now seeking to close nearly two dozen of these field offices around the world as a cost-saving measure, but critics say the closures will further delay refugee processing, family reunification petitions and military citizenship applications.
According to the Washington Post, officials have said there are more than 20 international USCIS offices, including several in Mexico, two in China and one that was set to open in Ethiopia. Administration officials say the move will allow them to shift resources to backlogs in the United States, and they estimate the government will save millions of dollars each year by phasing out these international offices.
‘Remain in Mexico’
The move comes at a time when the Trump administration is seeking to process as many immigration claims outside of the U.S. as possible. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is looking to expand the Migration Protection Protocols, unofficially known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, which requires many asylum applicants from Central America to await the outcomes of their immigration proceedings in Mexico instead of in the U.S. Critics of the USCIS international office closures worry this is another attempt by the White House to discourage foreigners from attempting to come to the U.S.
For the most part, these offices in other countries facilitate applications from potential U.S. immigrants — a mission that President Trump has said in the past that he supports as a way to prevent immigrants from illegally crossing the southwest border. USCIS is currently funded by fees from immigrants and U.S. citizens paid for immigration services. The State Department is preparing to absorb some of these responsibilities through its consular services departments overseas.
Refugee Applications Bottleneck
The agency has stated the U.S. refugee program would not be affected because refugee interviews are conducted by U.S.-based personnel who travel around the world, according to NPR. However, Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, argued that the plan will likely exacerbate a bottleneck of processing refugee applications that has led to fewer opportunities for people to seek asylum in the United States. She told NPR that because of the “massive backlog of outstanding asylum cases,” the Trump administration has significantly reduced the cap on allowable refugees from 45,000 in fiscal year 2018 to 30,000 in fiscal year 2019.
This shrinking quota is part of the reason that so many people fleeing violence and poverty in Central America are choosing to go the asylum request or illegal crossing route rather than the legal immigration route, which can take 20 years or more for unskilled workers. The backlog of asylum cases was at almost 800,000 at the beginning of fiscal year 2019, and the average wait before an asylum seeker gets scheduled for an immigration hearing is between two and three years. There are currently 412 immigration judges, and outlined in the White House recent budget request, the goal is to have 659 immigration judges in place by some time in 2020.
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