Senate aid bill allocates $3 billion to immigration agencies

The GOP proposal would help Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, both struggling to collect fees

A Customs and Border Protection vehicle patrols the Rio Grande Valley Sector of Texas last August.  (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A Customs and Border Protection vehicle patrols the Rio Grande Valley Sector of Texas last August. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 28, 2020 at 2:02pm

Two immigration agencies facing budget deficits after struggling to collect fees amid the coronavirus pandemic would get nearly $3 billion in relief from an economic aid package unveiled by Senate Republicans.

The help would come as part of a series of measures that make up a $1 trillion plan to help address the current economic downturn by extending unemployment benefits and offering another round of tax rebate checks. But the coronavirus relief package, the result of weeklong talks between Republicans and White House officials, would not include aid to certain immigrants excluded in the last round of aid payments.

Under one part of the plan unveiled late Monday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would get a $1.2 billion loan from the Treasury Department to satisfy an emergency funding request it made to Congress in May. The fee-funded agency said without help, it would be forced to furlough about 13,400 employees, or roughly two-thirds of its staff. 

The Republican plan also would allow USCIS to add a surcharge to its application fees to help the agency pay back its loan to the government.

USCIS announced last week that it would postpone its furlough plans for a month, until Aug. 30, to give lawmakers more time to act on its request. The agency, which is responsible for allocating immigration benefits and visas, also said “an uptick in application and petition receipts” has provided some flexibility in helping to pay for expenses through the end of the current fiscal year.

The coronavirus relief package would also provide $1.6 billion to Customs and Border Protection “to account for fee shortfalls to continue immigration processing and customs-related activities normally funded by fees,” according to a summary of the plan.

International travel and border crossings have dramatically plunged since the beginning of the pandemic and amid border restrictions set by the Trump administration. Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP’s field employees, recently raised concerns about the impact the fee shortage will have on workers.

“Without appropriated funding to support these CBP officers in [fiscal] 2020, we are gravely concerned that this loss of user fee funding could result in furloughs at a time when trade and travel will be struggling to return to normal,” Reardon told members of a House Homeland Security Committee panel on oversight, management and accountability last month.

The coronavirus relief package would not provide any aid payments to millions of U.S. citizens or tax-paying immigrants in “mixed-status” households left out of the last relief bill. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Thom Tillis of North Carolina had led an effort to include a provision that would allow U.S. citizens married to undocumented immigrants to qualify for future payments. The provision was laid out in a bill they introduced but has not seen any movement. 

“No American should be denied a federal stimulus check because they are married to a foreign national who is not a U.S. citizen,” Rubio said in a statement earlier this month after introducing the measure.

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, estimates 15.4 million people living in mixed-status families — where members have different citizenship or immigration statuses — were excluded from the stimulus payments.

The American Business Immigration Coalition expressed disappointment that the Republican relief package did not go far enough to help certain Americans, regardless of their family members.

“Punishing U.S. citizens who happen to have an immigrant spouse or parent is morally wrong, economically harmful and politically foolish in an election year,” said ABIC co-chair John Rowe in a statement Monday. “This continued exclusion of voting U.S. citizens is likely to alienate those voters in key battleground states like Florida, Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina by denying them access to stimulus checks.”