Opinion

Americans Agree: Legal Immigration Is Essential to U.S. Economy and Democracy

The legal immigrants who enter the country generate billions in revenue for American businesses, including at colleges and universities across the country through student visas. International students alone generated nearly $41 billion to the national economy in the 2018-2019 academic year. These student visas are just some of the hundreds of thousands of applications we process each year.

On Aug. 30, more than 70 percent of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services staff members are slated to be furloughed, putting American businesses, our military and our economy at risk and leaving families like ours without a livelihood.

USCIS employees are the behind-the-scenes workers you don’t typically think of when discussing the U.S. immigration system. We’re a government agency that’s almost entirely self-funded by application fees from legal immigrants entering the country – all while we generate billions in revenue for American businesses and the economy. We’re the ones processing visa applications, adjudicating cases and helping businesses, the military and nongovernmental organizations legally access the documented workforce they need. If these cuts go through, 13,400 workers will lose these essential jobs, compounding already devastatingly dismal employment numbers across the nation.

It will also cost much more to restart the agency services and processes rather than it would to simply continue funding it through Congress, until the fees collected through the adjudication of applications resumes. 

United States businesses that play by the rules will be even more devastated by these cuts. These cuts will penalize law-abiding businesses, which are already reeling from the economic effects of COVID-19, and will lead to an undocumented influx of immigrants into the country, if businesses and workers are faced with no other options.

The job cuts will also stifle legal immigration by effectively shutting down existing legal pathways for naturalization, including for those seeking naturalization through military service. The U.S. armed forces have incentivized service by providing immigrants the ability to earn citizenship through military service. These furloughs would destroy this tradition and shut down a key pipeline to service for aspiring military service members.

In fact,84 percent of Americans agree that on the whole, legal immigration is a good thing. Americans agree we need a well-functioning legal immigration system now more than ever. There is bipartisan support for funding the USCIS – now, we need Congress to act.

Now is not the time to put more American workers on the street in a way that will sap revenue from the American economy. Now is not the time to be creating a backlog that could hurt applicants seeking to earn their citizenship through honorable service in our military. 

While the looming furlough deadline presents a challenge, it is also a rare opportunity for a truly bipartisan solution to a red-tape problem that is putting jobs and businesses at risk.

A bill introduced by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) would grant a critical funding infusion before the Aug. 30 deadline, protecting our legal immigration system, our economy and thousands of American workers. 

The $1.2 billion congressional infusion of funds – allocated over two years – would be entirely paid back by increasing fees paid by legal applicants by 10 percent until private funding for the USCIS stabilizes. Legal immigrants would still be processed, businesses and the military could still recruit the talent they need, and thousands of American jobs would be saved.

It’s a small drop in a large bucket when it comes to congressional spending — and especially considering that it is money which would be paid back by applicants themselves. Congressional funding for the USCIS is a win-win for taxpayers, businesses, workers and those seeking to enter the country through existing legal channels. 

The debate over the many ways in which our immigration system requires reforms will carry on over time. However, there should be no debate on either side of the aisle in Congress about the fact that the limited but critical existing pathways to legal immigration, all key functions of vital importance to our democracy, our economy, and our national security, must be funded and upheld.

Danielle Spooner serves as president of AFGE National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council 119, AFL-CIO, which represents 13,000 CIS employees nationwide.  Kenneth Palinkas serves as executive vice president of AFGE National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council 119 and president of Local 0235 in New York.

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