As the U.S. federal government shut down for the first time in nearly two decades on Tuesday, October 1st, hundreds of thousands of “non-essential” employees were told to stay home while Congress remains frozen in a funding deadlock. The partial federal shutdown will impact a number of government agencies—including those that provide immigration-related services.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Labor (DOL), and the State Department—the cabinet-level agencies most involved with immigration—have outlined their contingency plans and procedures for dealing with a lapse in federal funding. Some of the personnel and functions that may continue during a government shutdown are those necessary for national security or the safety of human life or protection of property, and those “funded by sources other than annual appropriation funds.” The latter includes most of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is largely funded by service fees.
Most of the government’s immigration functions will carry on business as usual, but the shutdown will have some impacts. The following summarizes how the lapse in funding will affect immigration-related services:
Department of Homeland Security
Most of DHS will remain open and operational since its functions are either necessary for the safety of life and protection of property or funded by other means. The border will remain staffed, as 88 percent of Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and employees will remain on the job. Immigration enforcement activities such as deportations will also continue, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will continue to operate at near-full capacity.
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services USCIS is almost entirely self-funded by service fees and will therefore remain open. USCIS will continue to process applications for numerous visas and petitions, such as H-1B, L-1, and I-140. In addition, interviews and appointments at all USCIS offices will continue as scheduled.
- E-Verify The electronic employment verification program, E-Verify, which is used by more than 409,000 employers to verify that an employee is authorized to work in the U.S., will be completely in the dark for the duration of the shutdown because it is congressionally funded. Users will be unable to enroll in the program, verify the employment eligibility of a potential worker, or take action on any case.
Department of Labor
About 82 percent of the Labor Department’s 16,304 employees are expected to be furloughed. This could have a significant effect on DOL-USCIS inter-agency functions and businesses around the country that hire foreign workers. The Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) will be closed during the shutdown, and the PERM system and iCert Visa Portal System websites are currently down. This means that DOL will not process several applications, including Permanent Labor Certifications, which allow employers to hire foreign worker to work permanently in the U.S. Other services that will be affected include the processing of applications for Labor Condition Certification (LCA), Temporary Employment Certification and Prevailing Wage Determination. Businesses looking to hire foreign workers depend on required DOL certifications like LCAs in order to successfully petition with USCIS.
Department of State
The State Department advised that the processing and issuance of passports and visas is expected to go on as usual because they are funded by fees. However, processing may experience a slowdown if “a passport agency is located in a government building affected by a lapse in appropriations, [because] the facility may become unsupported.”
While the majority of immigration courts around the country are expected to stay open and in business, some “petitions for political asylum and non-emergency deportation cases could be delayed for months if the shutdown lasts more than a few days,” as the Washington Post recently reported.
Ultimately, the shutdown’s most significant impact on immigration could be its indirect impact on prospects for immigration reform in Congress. With the debt limit battle also looming in the horizon, the congressional calendar does not seem favorable to those who saw this year as prime time for much-needed immigration reform to get through Congress. Not only are lawmakers’ attention focused on different issues and crises, but the bitterness and partisanship surrounding those debates could undermine their ability to come together on immigration reform in the near future. Although several House Republicans have publicly voiced plans to move immigration bills after the shutdown and debt ceiling crises, it remains to be seen whether these intentions will survive intense and unfolding budget debates.