Furloughs loom for 13,400 federal immigration employees

U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services said without emergency funding, it will move forward with furloughs on Aug. 30

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it needs Congress to act on a $1.2 billion emergency funding request to prevent furloughs.  (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it needs Congress to act on a $1.2 billion emergency funding request to prevent furloughs. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 19, 2020 at 4:32pm

Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy called for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to call off plans to furlough more than 13,000 of its employees at the end of this month.

The fee-funded Homeland Security agency has said it could begin the furloughs on Aug. 30 because of a projected budget shortfall. But in a letter Leahy sent Tuesday to the agency, the Vermont Democrat noted that USCIS recently projected it had enough funding to pay all of its staff through the end of the current fiscal year and still have “a sizeable” balance to start the new year.

“To put it more plainly, USCIS could pay all of its staff through the end of the fiscal year, avoid furloughs entirely, and still end the fiscal year with a sizeable carryover balance,” Leahy told USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

In May, USCIS, the agency responsible for allocating immigration visas and conducting naturalization ceremonies, asked Congress for $1.2 billion in emergency funding, saying it otherwise would have to furlough about 13,400 employees by the beginning of August.

Last month, however, the agency announced it would postpone furloughs until Aug. 30 after receiving assurances from lawmakers that they would support the emergency funding request.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have since left the nation's capital for the August recess without taking up the issue. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told lawmakers to return by the end of this week to address legislation to support the U.S. Postal Service. The lawmakers may also address USCIS funding, but calls seeking clarification from Pelosi’s office were not returned Wednesday.

A USCIS spokesperson confirmed to CQ Roll Call, however, that the agency still plans to administer furloughs by the end of the month if Congress does not provide emergency funding.

[USCIS postpones plans to furlough 13,400 employees, for now]

Michael Knowles, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1924, which represents USCIS employees in the nation’s capital, said that agency workers feel abandoned by both the Trump administration and Congress.

“The agency needs to do the right thing by its work force and the American people and keep us on the job to carry out the important mission with which we have been entrusted,” he said in an email.

Nandini P. Nair, an immigration attorney based in New Jersey, said that furloughs would be catastrophic for U.S. businesses and immigrants alike.

“The impact is going to be significant for both employers and immigrants who rely on USCIS to get green cards and other visas to come to the U.S.,” Nair said in an interview Wednesday. “It's important to understand that USCIS processes work permits and work permit renewals. If those are not processed timely, then those individuals will have to lose their jobs and it will add to the unemployment in the country.”

Leahy’s letter to DHS officials is his latest attempt to urge the administration to call off the furloughs. 

“The decision to shut down the legal immigration system by furloughing these employees will harm our economy, have adverse impacts on trade, encourage unlawful immigration, and is patently unfair to our federal workforce and to individuals who have waited so long to be reunited with their families,” he said.