With congressional leaders gridlocked over the nation’s budget and the deadline to pass spending bills fast approaching, the federal government could shut down on October 1. And that can affect some immigration services and visa programs.
If the federal government closes, only essential personnel will be working. All other federal workers will not be allowed to work. So how will that affect immigration in the U.S.?
The main difference between the following agencies is that some are fee-funded and the others rely on congressional appropriations for funding.
“In addition to where the budget for these different agencies comes from, we also need to look at the plans that each agency has published for just this kind of scenario,” said Cesar Cuauhtemoc Garcia Hernandez, a professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University and an expert on migration studies.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Homeland Security Department, helps manage the country’s naturalization and immigration system. USCIS is mostly fee-funded and will continue to operate as usual because it does not depend on Congress to fund its services. However, some exceptions exist – for example, the E-Verify program and the EB5 investor program, which coordinate the departments of Labor and State.
“That said, while USCIS will keep looking, some [labor] applications cannot be filed unless they’re accompanied by a statement from the Department of Labor that there are not enough workers in the United States who fill certain jobs,” Garcia Hernandez said on social media.
Operations at the Labor Department in the Office of Foreign Labor Certification will close. So those waiting for decisions on their work permit applications will be affected by a shutdown.
“This aspect of the Labor Department’s work will likely close down in the event of a shutdown, and so that will affect the visa application and [other] things, even if slightly indirectly, because those [work] visa applications cannot be processed without that Labor Department certification,” he said.
At the U.S. borders with Mexico or Canada, ports of entry monitored by U.S. Customs and Border Protection will be open, and processing of passengers will continue. The processing of some applications filed at the border, however, may be affected.
“At the border, most CBP operations should run normally since most CBP employees will continue working, albeit without pay. That said, I would not be surprised if CBP shuts down or slows down the processing of some visas at border ports of entry – for example, a small number of visas for professionals that require in-person processing by CBP at ports of entry. To be clear, this is a small fraction of what CBP does at any port of entry,” Garcia Hernandez told VOA by email.
Visa and passport operations are fee-funded and usually not affected in a shutdown. Processing of nonessential visas, though, such as those that are recreational in nature, may slow or be suspended at U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide, which could result in visa interview backlogs.
During a shutdown, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers will still remove undocumented immigrants. But they’ll focus on those who are being held in immigration detention and have removal orders.
“It will be possible for [ICE] to remove people even during a shutdown, but there will likely be fewer removals because the immigration courts will be slowed down a lot. If judges don’t issue as many removal orders as they normally would, due to the fact that most immigration court staff isn’t working, then there will be fewer removal orders for [ICE] to execute,” Garcia Hernandez told VOA.
Officials from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a subagency within the Justice Department tasked with adjudicating immigration claims, also known as immigration courts, will work only on the cases of those in immigration detention.
The American Immigration Council reports that during previous shutdowns, courts have not accepted new filings, and “it remains to be seen whether EOIR will continue to accept filings through its electronic system, or ECAS, which did not exist during the previous shutdown.”
Immigration courts will postpone hearings on cases for those who are not detained.
“They will try to keep moving forward on cases involving people who are imprisoned by ICE. Meanwhile, those people whose cases will get canceled or these hearings will be canceled then rescheduled are likely to have to wait a very long time to get another court date,” Garcia Hernandez said on social media.
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, immigration courts across the country already are facing large backlogs.
The wait time for a hearing on an immigrant’s asylum claim is about five years or longer.
“While the Executive Office for Immigration Review has ramped up recruiting efforts to add new immigration judges, decades of underfunding have meant that it has been unable to make a dent in the backlog, which continues to climb. It has reached 2,620,591 at the end of August,” according to the TRAC website.
“So, the longer the shutdown lasts, the more we can expect it to affect the government’s duties,” Garcia Hernandez said.
Some Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus said they won’t support any spending bill without certain measures, including border wall construction, prolonged detention of asylum-seekers, and deportation of unaccompanied minors. And that is unlikely to win support in the Democratic-majority Senate.
Government funding is set to end on September 30 unless Congress acts.