USCIS cancels furloughs for more than 13,000 employees

But ‘no guarantee we can avoid future furloughs,’ immigration agency warns

USCIS says a recent bump in revenues and aggressive cost-cutting measures yielded enough funds to maintain operations through Sept. 30. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)
USCIS says a recent bump in revenues and aggressive cost-cutting measures yielded enough funds to maintain operations through Sept. 30. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 25, 2020 at 5:05pm

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Tuesday it will cancel plans to furlough roughly two-thirds of its staff at the end of the week.

The Homeland Security agency was scheduled to begin furloughs of about 13,400 employees on Aug. 30 because of ongoing budget woes, but it said in a statement that a recent bump in revenues and aggressive cost-cutting measures yielded enough funds to maintain operations through the end of the current fiscal year.

However, Joseph Edlow, USCIS deputy director for policy, warned that “averting this furlough comes at a severe operational cost that will increase backlogs and wait times across the board, with no guarantee we can avoid future furloughs.”

“A return to normal operating procedures requires congressional intervention to sustain the agency through fiscal year 2021,” he said in a statement.

Furloughs have loomed for months over USCIS employees, who are responsible for adjudicating green cards, asylum requests and conducting naturalization ceremonies.

In May, the fee-funded agency asked Congress for $1.2 billion in emergency funding after projecting a budget shortfall. Without the funds, the agency said, it would be forced to furlough roughly two-thirds of its 20,000 employees by Aug. 3.

Last month, USCIS postponed the deadline to Aug. 30 after receiving assurances from lawmakers who vocalized their support of the emergency funding request. But the money never materialized.

On Saturday, the House passed a stopgap measure that would allow USCIS to raise certain fees and access enough revenue to prevent the furlough. But the bill’s future is uncertain since the Senate will be in recess through the rest of the month.

Many USCIS offices that closed amid the pandemic have started to open, and congressional lawmakers noted that the agency now has enough money to make it not just through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, but into November.

In a letter last Friday to Edlow and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, seven members of Congress noted that, as of Aug. 12, USCIS was estimated to finish this fiscal year with a $230 million balance.

“As a result, the agency does not need to furlough employees or to cancel or descope contracts in fiscal year 2020 in order to remain solvent,” they said in a letter led by Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and House Homeland Security Appropriations Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.

Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said he was pleased USCIS called off its furlough plans, but added that “the emotional strain placed on these members of our communities who did not know when their next paycheck would come was a completely needless crisis imposed by the Trump Administration.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also welcomed news that “USCIS has rethought this decision, which would have crippled our immigration system and left so many in limbo.”

Edlow noted in an internal email, which was viewed by CQ Roll Call, that cost-cutting measures will continue for now and warned that “without congressional action,” there could be significant impacts on operations, such as longer case-processing times and waiting periods for those seeking to become U.S. citizens.

The president of a union council that represents 13,000 agency employees nationwide expressed relief at Tuesday’s announcement.

“Now we can get down to working on immigration matters and focus on getting back on the right path,” said Danielle Spooner, president of the American Federation of Government Employees CIS Council 119, which represents 13,000 CIS employees nationwide.