On Friday, President Biden is expected to send his first full budget proposal to Congress. By now all Americans should be closely tuned-in to the federal budget given the absolutely critical role it plays in our nation’s recovery from the pandemic. When the President delivers his budget, he will also be conveying his vision for the nation’s immigration system, a massive federal endeavor that spans several agencies. The two pillars of the immigration adjudication system—the immigration courts and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—require not only adequate funding but reforms to address massive case backlogs and inefficient, counterproductive policies implemented by the previous administration that crippled those agencies’ operations. Special attention should be paid to how the President funds immigration enforcement which now exceeds $26 billion annually and dwarfs that of all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.
AILA will be looking for the President’s budget to accomplish the following:
- Decrease detention funding. Since the mid-1990s, detention spending has skyrocketed from an average of about 7,000 people detained each day to a height of 50,000 people detained in 2019. Detention levels dropped significantly in 2020, but Congress still appropriates $3 billion annually for immigration detention despite evidence showing that conditions are unsafe and that it is grossly overused and unnecessary. Unfortunately, the Washington Post reported this week that DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas does not plan to reduce the detention budget. On Wednesday when asked by Congressman Pete Aguilar (D-CA) at a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee, the Secretary would not commit to reducing detention though he did say, “I am concerned about the overuse of detention.” The country’s excessive reliance on detention wastes taxpayer funds and is not in line with American values. As a reform-minded leader, Secretary Mayorkas should reduce detention spending for fiscal year 2022 to one third its current level and expand the use of community-based case management as a more effective alternative that is humane and cost-saving while ensuring appearances at court hearings.
- Increase funding for legal representation. A great travesty of the immigration justice system is its failure to guarantee legal representation paid-for by the government for people who cannot afford counsel. As a result, more than 40 percent of people facing removal have gone unrepresented by counsel. Counsel is the most important factor in ensuring court hearings are fair—in fact, people are many times more likely to be granted asylum or other legal relief if they have an attorney compared to those without counsel. So far the President has signaled a willingness to expand counsel programs for child asylum seekers—an unquestionably vulnerable group. But if he wants the system to operate fairly and efficiently, he must also seek more funding to provide counsel for the thousands of adult asylum seekers, people in detention, and others who are highly vulnerable. AILA stands with twenty senators and 48 House members who wrote to the President urging him to increase funding for legal representation.
- Reform the immigration courts; don’t just hire judges. After four months in office, the only signal the President has given that he has any idea the immigration courts are in crisis is to seek more funds to hire immigration judges and staff. The Attorney General has been silent on immigration while the courts that are under his control struggle with 1.3 million cases in the backlog. Adding personnel may help, but deeper reforms are urgently needed to restore fairness and integrity to the system. Under President Trump, immigration judges denied asylum at higher rates than ever before and were placed under onerous case completion quotas and other policies designed to speed-up proceedings at the expense of a fair hearing. President Biden must eliminate those harmful practices and restore integrity and impartiality to the courts. Even more effective than him hiring more judges would be for the Justice Department to defer up to 700,000 cases that are not priorities for adjudication but are clogging the court docket, such as cases in which the person is eligible for immigration relief before USCIS.
- Stabilize America’s immigration benefits agency–USCIS. For years, USCIS has suffered crisis level delays in adjudicating immigration benefit applications. Since fiscal year 2014, processing times have increased 101 percent, despite a decrease in the number of applications received. Exacerbating the backlog were Trump administration policies—many still in effect today—that were designed to slow down the legal immigration system and directly led to a financial crisis at USCIS. Rather than increasing fees on those who can least afford it—something the previous administration attempted to do—President Biden must ensure that USCIS is properly funded and restore its statutory mission of adjudicating immigration benefits applications efficiently and fairly. AILA urges the administration to fully implement the Emergency Stopgap USCIS Stabilization Act, enacted in October 2020, which enables the expansion of premium processing and other measures to improve efficiency and generate more revenue. In the short term, we hope the President will seek additional appropriations to hire sufficient staff and implement technology to reduce crisis-level backlogs. Increasing the capacity of the Asylum Division to handle initial asylum adjudications is also essential for USCIS to meet urgent needs at the U.S. southern border.
- Rebuild State Department Capacity. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and travel bans designed to stop the flow of legal immigration, the Department of State is suffering crisis-level backlogs and staffing shortages. Nearly 500,000 immigrant visas are awaiting interviews, which will be lost if not adjudicated by the end of the fiscal year and would result in the permanent separation of families. Moreover, U.S. businesses are unable to hire necessary employees to revive the economy. Adequate appropriations for personnel and technology must be provided to put the State Department back on track.
None of these ideas are “news” to the administration, but the question is: Will President Biden prioritize these vital reforms to the immigration system in his budget? AILA and its members will continue to advocate for these smart and sensible reforms to the budget that will greatly improve the immigration system, make it fairer and more efficient, and even save lives.