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USCIS Furlough and Funding Issues: 5 Things to Know

Updated 8/25/20: On Tuesday, August 25th, USCIS announced that the planned furloughs had been canceled; however, the agency claims it will have to severely limit operations, and additional funding is still needed.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency responsible for administering the United States’ immigration system, has said it is preparing to furlough more than 13,000 federal workers by the end of the month, unless Congress provides additional funding. But with August recess already underway, immediate action from Congress is extremely unlikely. Fortunately, USCIS has discovered it has enough funding to continue through the fiscal year, with some carryover. The agency should keep its workers employed until the start of the next fiscal year, so that Americans can keep working while Congress works on a solution.

1| USCIS is the engine of the United States immigration system

USCIS is the federal agency charged with providing immigration adjudication and naturalization services for benefits in the U.S., such as work and travel authorization, employment and family-based green cards, temporary employment visas, international adoptions, asylum, deferred action such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and other humanitarian-based programs.

USCIS also manages the naturalization process whereby immigrants of all backgrounds, including relatives of U.S. citizens, skilled workers, asylees and refugees, and veterans of the armed forces, can become American citizens.

Unlike many other federal agencies, USCIS is fee-funded. This means that when individuals apply for these benefits, the fees associated with those applications and petitions go into an account that funds most of the agency’s operations.

Though USCIS is headquartered in Washington, D.C., the agency relies on processing centers and field offices across the country, staffed by about 20,000 federal employees, to manage the millions of petitions and applications it receives each year.

2| USCIS plans to furlough tens of thousands of employees by the end of August, despite projected budget surplus

In May 2020, USCIS leadership told Congress that the COVID-19 crisis had led to a decline in the number of applications received from individuals applying for immigration benefits (and therefore, filing fees), forcing “a crippling budget shortfall” that would require Congressional funding in the amount of $1.2 billion in order to keep staff working.

USCIS claims that it will need to furlough more than 70% of its workforce in order to maintain its basic operations if Congress does not provide additional funds. With Congress in recess for all of August, it is highly unlikely that it will provide additional funding to the agency before the furloughs take effect.

However, furloughs are not immediately necessary, because USCIS has made public that it has adequate funds to be able to pay its staff until at least October, possibly beyond. On July 29, 2020, USCIS Deputy Director Joseph Edlow testified to the House Oversight Committee that the agency had “more revenue in June than we estimated, which combined with planned expense reductions could potentially cover costs through the end of the fiscal year.” Despite these changes, USCIS’ plans to impose the furloughs remain, without clear explanation from the agency as to why they would do this since, by their own recent admission, they have adequate funding to continue keeping staff on the job

USCIS still faces financial trouble (Mr. Edlow did explain that the increased revenue “would only delay an inevitable furlough into early FY 2021”). But postponing the furloughs into FY2021 (they have been delayed twice already, once to give Congress time to act and again following pressure from Senator Leahy (D-VT) and Tester (D-MT)), would give Congress time to reach a solution, keep USCIS staff employed, and allow the immigration system to continue running, as well as for USCIS to continue collecting revenue during that time.

3| Thousands of employees in Missouri, Nebraska, Texas, and Vermont would unnecessarily be put out of work

These furloughs would force tens of thousands of federal employees out of work in the midst of historically difficult economic times and the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis.

The USCIS furlough threat looms especially large for Missouri, home to USCIS’ National Benefits and Records Centers, which employ approximately 3,100 people and process many USCIS form types, including the majority of international adoption filings.

The furloughs would also be devastating for states like, Nebraska and Vermont, whose processing centers employ more than 1,000 American workers apiece and which manage filings for work authorization, adjustment of status, DACA, and employment-based visas like H-1B, H-2B, and L-1. The thousand employees at the USCIS’ Texas Service Center, which adjudicates approximately one million filings each year, would suffer a similar fate.

4| Mismanagement has contributed to budget shortfalls

Analysts who have examined USCIS’ operations over several years argue that the agency’s budget problems have been driven by mismanagement at USCIS, leading it to spend more money while providing less in terms of services. While the agency has increased its headcount, its productivity has decreased, with case processing times increasing by 91 percent–nearly doubling–over the last five years, and the net backlog reaching historic highs.

Trump Administration policies imposing burdensome requirements and requiring excessive scrutiny of routine immigration applications, such as mandatory in-person interviews for green card applicants and the elimination of “deference” for previously approved applicants, mean cases often take much longer to adjudicate, contributing to the dramatic slowdown. The new restrictions have also made immigration much more difficult on the whole, contributing to declining application numbers in recent years – and preventing talented workers from contributing fully to the U.S. economy, while keeping families apart for months and even years longer.

Allowing the USCIS furloughs to take effect would only exacerbate the problem by severely restricting the agency’s ability to process applications for immigration benefits. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the furloughs “will interrupt nearly all permanent and temporary immigration processing” and could increase backlogs (already at a staggering 5.7 million pending applications) by 75,000 filings per month.

5| USCIS is a benefits agency for the American people and their families, and should remain open

Sen. Leahy has written to the agency leadership again, urging them to hold off on furloughing employees through the end of the fiscal year, and providing assurances that, “Members of both parties and both chambers have publicly expressed support for USCIS,” committing to act by October 1.

We agree – USCIS must remain open.

Delaying furloughs would allow Congress to tackle the issue after they return from August recess, and to explore ways to increase revenue or access additional funds, such as expanding the premium processing service, or lifting restrictions on how certain filing fees are used.

If immigration becomes an impossibility, even for a short period, it is Americans who will be harmed – children waiting to be reunited with their parents, parents waiting to meet their adopted children, veterans who have served our country and are waiting to swear the Oath of Allegiance to become United States citizens, employers lacking those best qualified to help their businesses succeed and create new jobs, and all Americans who take pride in our nation’s role as a land of opportunity.

Virtually ending legal immigration would be also devastating for the U.S. economy, even in the short term; immigrants contribute tremendously to America, particularly the millions of immigrants serving in essential frontline roles to combat the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

On August 22nd, 2020, the House of Representatives unanimously passed H.R. 8089, a bipartisan bill that addresses the funding issues by reforming and expanding the premium processing service. That bill is now awaiting action in the Senate.

USCIS is tasked with serving the American people, and must continue to do so, at a time when the United States needs it most.

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