In recent weeks we've seen lots of talks (again) of government shutdowns and the impact that might have on US citizens and residents. While the impact of these shutdowns would be vast, we thought we'd assess what exactly the implications might be for those who are on existing visas, or who might be applying for a visa both in and outside the US.
To start, it might be helpful to outline what exactly these shutdown talks are all about.
What is a Government shutdown and why does it keep happening?
A U.S. government shutdown occurs when Congress and the president fail to pass appropriations (the budget) legislation funding government operations and agencies. This impacts various federal services and operations, including visa processing and non-immigration related resources.
As politics in general becomes more and more divided, with a president from one party and a Congress from the other party, this will likely become more frequent.
What does fee-funded mean when it comes to government services?
In the below list and across the internet, you will likely come across the term “fee-funded” when talking about the Department of State, and the USCIS.
“Fee-funded” refers to programs, services, or agencies that are primarily financed by fees collected from users or beneficiaries of those services, rather than relying on appropriations from general tax revenues allocated by legislative bodies.
So when you apply for a visa or any processing, you generally pay a range of fees to these departments. Those fees go to funding their ongoing processes, which makes them less reliant on the Government, and subsequently less-impacted during government disputes and shutdowns.
Which departments and processes will be impacted by a Government shutdown?
- U.S. Department of State (DOS) Services: The DOS handles visa applications at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. While consular operations are generally fee-funded and might continue, they could be impacted by a lack of available staff. During past shutdowns, most visa services continued, but the processing times might have been slower due to reduced staffing. Some Consulates and Embassies around the world who have lighter staff levels may also completely close for a period.
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Services: USCIS, which handles immigration benefits inside the U.S. (like green card applications), is largely fee-funded. This means that during a government shutdown, most of its operations continue as usual. However, some specific programs which are not fee-funded might experience interruptions. They have in the past permitted extension applications to be filed and delayed submissions to be made if the reason (supported by evidence) was the shutdown, but do not rely on that and speak to an attorney.
- U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Services: DOL which handles the verification of your LCA documents, PERM labor certification applications, and prevailing wage requests are not fee-funded and therefore do rely on Government allocations. While they've in the past been resilient to many impacts, a long-term shutdown could have significant impacts on the turnaround times for LCA processing.
- Visa Waiver Program: The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. Since this does not involve a visa application process, it's typically unaffected by government shutdowns.
- E-Verify System: E-Verify, the internet-based system that compares information from an employee's Form I-9 to U.S. government records to confirm employment eligibility, might be unavailable during a government shutdown. This can affect employers trying to verify the employment eligibility of their employees.
- Border and Port of Entry Operations: Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are considered essential personnel, so they typically continue to work during government shutdowns, ensuring that borders remain secure and ports of entry remain operational. However, reduced staffing might lead to increased wait times.
- Potential Backlogs: Even if visa processing continues during a shutdown, there might be backlogs created due to reduced staffing or operational hiccups. Once the government resumes full operation, it could take time to clear out the backlog, leading to further delays.
- Support Services: Other government agencies that provide supplementary services to the immigration process, such as the FBI (for background checks), could have reduced operations, potentially causing delays in visa processing.
- Communications: Getting updates about visa applications or having questions answered might be harder during a shutdown, as non-essential personnel might not be available to assist or provide information.
What can you do to mitigate these issues of a shutdown now?
There are a few things you can consider:
- Speak to a lawyer – As always the most important thing you to do is get good personal advice from immigration attorneys. They will understand your exact situation and advise you carefully.
- Don't wait – In general it's ok to wait for your visa renewal to stretch it out as long as possible but these days if you have the opportunity you should take it. Don't wait until the last minute to get your filings in, as it will likely mean you'll have the longest wait.
- Keep an eye on the news – Stay informed both about these issues and the Government in general. You are in a country that is not your own so you should always have at least a light understanding.
What else is worth considering when it comes to shutdown impact?
It's worth noting that the specific implications of a government shutdown can vary based on the length of the shutdown, the specific provisions of the appropriations legislation (or lack thereof), and any contingency plans that individual agencies might have in place.
If you have some experience in this space, we'd love to hear from you in the comments below!