USCIS informs 13,000 federal employees of potential furloughs without emergency funding

Move could cause a significant increase in wait time for people seeking immigration benefits and delay naturalizations

The furloughs would further delay hundreds of thousands of citizenship ceremonies already postponed by the pandemic. (CQ Roll Call)
The furloughs would further delay hundreds of thousands of citizenship ceremonies already postponed by the pandemic. (CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 24, 2020 at 3:36pm

More than 13,000 Homeland Security employees who oversee the nation’s citizenship and visa process will be getting furlough notices this week unless Congress comes through with the emergency funding sought by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, according to the union representing the workers.

The USCIS formally notified the American Federation of Government Employees that nearly 70 percent of the agency’s employees could face extended furloughs starting as early as Aug. 3 unless Congress provides $1.2 billion in emergency funding, a union official said.

“It is not in the best interest of the American people to allow such a failure — which would have a substantial impact on millions of legal immigrants, permanent residents and US citizens and would be detrimental to American businesses, educational institutions, the economy and our law enforcement and health care systems,” said Michael Knowles, president of AFGE Local 1924, which represents about 2,500 USCIS employees in the Washington, D.C., area. 

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Government rules require advance notice of any furlough expected to last more than 30 days, the union said.

USCIS, which is largely funded by application fees, has nearly 20,000 federal employees overall, not including contractors. USCIS confirmed in a statement that without additional appropriations from Congress, the agency “will need to administratively furlough approximately 13,400 employees.”

In May, USCIS first notified Congress of a projected budget shortfall and asked for $1.2 billion in emergency funding that would stretch into the beginning of the next fiscal year.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS has seen a dramatic decrease in revenue and is seeking a one-time emergency request for funding to ensure we can carry out our mission of administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity, and protecting the American people,” the agency said at the time.  

Last week, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget sent Congress a letter saying that USCIS “will not have sufficient funding to maintain operations through the end of the fiscal year, nor will USCIS have balances to fund its operations during the first quarter of fiscal year 2021.”

It continued: “The Administration supports efforts to ensure USCIS operations continue as fee revenues rebound, and to ensure that such efforts come at no additional cost to taxpayers.” 

However, the one-page OMB letter fell short in specifically outlining what the funding would be used for, making it “more difficult for Congress to take action to address the shortfall at USCIS,” said Evan Hollander, a House Appropriations Committee spokesman.

“House Democrats are closely tracking USCIS’ financial difficulties and are prepared to discuss solutions with Senate Republicans as part of negotiations on the next phase of coronavirus response legislation,” Hollander said by email. “So far, Senate Republicans are unwilling to begin those negotiations.”

The potential furlough of so many federal employees could lead to a significant increase in wait time for people waiting for immigration benefits and delay the naturalizations of hundreds of thousands of immigrants on the cusp of becoming U.S. citizens but have seen their oath ceremonies delayed by the pandemic.  

The National Partnership of New Americans, a coalition of state, federal and local organizations that help naturalized citizens register to vote, estimated that 860,000 people were scheduled to become U.S. citizens this year. But that was before pandemic-related shutdowns. 

USCIS’ funding request has drawn skepticism from some immigration organizations. In May, the American Immigration Lawyers Association urged congressional appropriators to attach certain conditions to any emergency funding it approves.

“Congress should appropriate temporary funding to USCIS only if it includes safeguards related to transparency, accountability and efficiency,” AILA president Marketa Lindt said in a statement at the time. “It is clear that USCIS, an agency that only a few years ago had significant budget surpluses, has run itself into the ground through its own policies and inefficient processes. Without providing guardrails around such appropriations, the agency’s mismanagement will continue."

Since President Donald Trump took office, the USCIS has rolled out controversial policies that many advocacy groups say actively discourage immigrants from applying for naturalization or other immigration benefits. Among them, the public charge rule that gives the federal government broader authority to deny green cards and other visas from immigrants who use, or are deemed likely to rely on, food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 housing and other public benefits.

The agency has also proposed steep increases in fees for immigrants applying for naturalization. Last year, the agency proposed to increase the application fee for naturalization by 83 percent, from $640 to $1170.