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Concerns rise over U.S. plan to close all overseas immigration offices

"This will create more backlog, in an already backlogged system,” an immigration attorney said about U.S.-based offices picking up international workload.
Immigrants To U.S. Become Citizens During Naturalization Ceremony
A man prepares to become an American citizen during a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony at the Hialeah Field Office on January 12, 2018 in Hialeah, Florida.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

Immigration advocates and attorneys like Nada Sater are concerned that the Trump administration is “creating a bigger catastrophe” if it follows through with plans to permanently close nearly two dozen U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field offices across the globe.

"This is going to affect refugees, military servicemen applying for citizenship, the family reunification program," Sater, an immigration attorney based in Miami, told NBC News.

The immigration agency said Tuesday that it was in “preliminary discussions" to shift its international office workloads to offices in the United States, agency spokesperson Jessica Collins said in a statement.

Officials at the agency claim that closing down international field offices would save millions of dollars each year.

"They are looking at bottom-line dollars, but bottom-line dollars will end up catching up to them," Sater said.

Enrique Gutierrez and John Santos, media directors at the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement that "the administration's explanation that the move is an effort to cut government spending does not hold up since USCIS's funding comes primarily from fees paid by people who use its services.”

Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, currently operates 23 international offices across Latin America, Europe and Asia.

These offices typically handle family visa requests, international adoptions and other tasks, such as helping American citizens who want to bring noncitizenrelatives to the U.S., processing refugee applications and enabling overseas citizenship applications, according to the agency's website.

The international offices can also process naturalizations of U.S. military service members who are not already U.S. citizens. USCIS officers abroad also look for fraud in visa applications and provide technical immigration advice to other government officials.

The agency plans to shift these services to agency offices based in the U.S., and American consulates and embassies abroad.

“In my opinion this will create more backlog, in an already backlogged system,” Sater said. “If any of the work is given to the field offices in the U.S., it will create more backlog for people who are waiting for some sort of approval from USCIS.”

There has been a 91 percent increase in the overall average time it takes to process an immigration case since fiscal year 2014, analyses from the American Immigration Lawyers Association show.

Just over the last year, the backlog has more than doubled. It went from about 1 million delayed adjudications to the current backlog of about 2.3 million.

International field offices are expected to start closing over the next year, officials said.

“They are doing an across-the-board effort to dismantle the capacity of this country to process refugees and immigrants legally,” said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a U.S. refugee assistance nonprofit organization. “It is not consistent with what President Trump said in the State of the Union, which is that he wants immigrants to come here, that he wants them to come here legally.”

Trump administration has worked to limit both legal and illegal immigration, including cuts to the U.S. refugee program and heightened vetting of U.S. visa applications.