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Effects of a U.S. Government Shutdown on Immigration

Wednesday | February 6, 2019 | by Lucy Cheung

U.S. government shutdown immigration

On December 22, 2018, the United States federal government went into a partial shutdown that lasted 35 days as a result of Congress and the president’s failure to agree on border security funding.

The president’s insistence on $5.7 billion in funding to build a border wall along the U.S. southern border—funding that Congress would not agree to—led to the standstill.

Although the government was reopened on January 25, 2019, after the president signed a short-term bill that did not include money for a wall, the bill provided funding only until mid-February. On February 15, 2019, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to fund the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall.

What Effect Does a Shutdown Have on the U.S. Immigration System?

A partial government shutdown has both a short- and long-term impact, depending on how long the shutdown lasts. Approximately 25 percent of government functions cease operations. Affected agencies include the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Department of Justice.

Most agency personnel of the Department of Homeland Security are furloughed (temporarily laid off) during a shutdown except for those who perform essential or critical functions, such as Customs and Border Protection at ports of entry. However, non-essential functions that are not fee-based will cease.

The following immigration-related agencies can be affected by a shutdown:

  • Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman: Its website is inactive until funding resumes. It also ceases handling requests for case assistance.
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS): USCIS is fee-based, therefore operations continue during a shutdown, except for some programs that are funded through appropriations. The E-Verify system is not operational during a shutdown.
  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP): Essential functions, such as inspections and law enforcement at ports of entry, remain operational. However, CBP ceases handling applications until funding is resumed.
  • Department of Labor: Up until September 2019, Labor Department operations continue even during a shutdown. The department is funded by a separate bill that was signed by the president in September 2018. After September, of course, this agency could also be affected in a shutdown.
  • Department of State: Other than fee-based applications and emergencies, most operations of this agency generally cease during a shutdown. However, the secretary of state can order the department’s employees to work, depending on agency resources or other reasons.
  • Department of Justice (Executive Office for Immigration Review): Courts generally hear only detained cases during a shutdown—all other cases are rescheduled.

What Does This Mean for Visa Applicants and International Students and Scholars?

If you are applying for or renewing a visa, it is a good idea to plan for delays at the State Department. Government agencies that were affected during the shutdown, including the State Department, are just resuming operations and will probably have backlogged cases or applications. Visa interview schedules may be affected.

As for international students and scholars, if you have a valid F-1 or J-1 visa, your travel should not be affected at the CBP ports of entry as long as you have the required travel documents (passports, I-20 forms, and so on). Those needing to apply for or renew visas may miss the upcoming semester if visa interviews cannot be scheduled with the State Department quickly.

General Immigration Application Delays

Other than the Executive Office for Immigration Review, immigration courts, the Ombudsman Office, and E-Verify, most immigration application delays are unrelated to the recent government shutdown. As noted earlier, USCIS is funded mostly through application fees and so remains mostly operational during a shutdown.

Many believe that the severe delays in application processing and the change in agency mentality in recent years are direct results of the Executive Order “Buy American and Hire American” signed by President Donald Trump on April 18, 2017.

A Final Tip

If the government shuts down again in the near future, keep in mind that Department of Homeland Security workers such as Customs and Border Protection officers at ports of entry may be working without pay. Always seek to be courteous and understanding. Also, before traveling internationally, remember to check with your school’s international student office.

Related Reading

New U.S. Visa Policy Affects International Students

Updated for 2019: Preparing for the F-1 Visa Interview

Lucy Cheung is a partner at Goldstein and Cheung LLP, an immigration law firm in New York City.