Monday, September 28, 2020
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USCIS abandons mass employee furloughs that would’ve crippled immigration system

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on Tuesday announced it would abandon plans to furlough more than 13,000 employees next week, temporarily averting a scenario that would have crippled the processing of applications for green cards, work permits, U.S. citizenship and other immigration benefits.

In a message to employees obtained by CBS News, Deputy USCIS Director for Policy Joseph Edlow said the agency was able to avoid furloughing nearly 70% of its workforce because its financial situation has “improved somewhat” since the spring, when the coronavirus pandemic fueled an unprecedented drop in applications. Unlike most other federal agencies, USCIS is largely funded through the fees it charges.

Though applications have increased in recent weeks, Edlow said the agency is still projecting a budget shortfall heading into fiscal year 2021, which starts in October, and needs a bailout from Congress. 

“Although our situation has temporarily improved due to a modest increase in revenues, Congress must act on a long-term fix that will provide the necessary financial assistance to sustain the agency,” he told employees in an email.

Edlow warned of “cost-reducing” actions that could result in increased wait times and prolong the processing of certain cases, like citizenship applications, in the absence of congressional action. USCIS declined to make Edlow available for an interview, but in a statement sent to reporters, he said a future furlough remains a possibility. 

“Our workforce is the backbone of every USCIS accomplishment. Their resilience and strength of character always serves the nation well, but in this year of uncertainty, they remain steadfast in their mission administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and protecting the American people, even as a furlough loomed before them,” Edlow said. “However, 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.”

USCIS, which is a division of the Department of Homeland Security, first informed Congress of its financial woes in the middle of May, requesting $1.2 billion in emergency funding and promising to repay the funds by imposing a 10% surcharge on applications.

However, in the ensuing months, a standoff between Congress and the Trump administration emerged over how USCIS should be rescued from a potential financial collapse. Lawmakers introduced several bills aimed at averting the furloughs, including one that passed the House over the weekend through unanimous consent, but no solution has received a greenlight from both chambers of Congress.

USCIS has maintained that the sole reason for the agency’s financial woes is the pandemic and its impact on applications. In the spring, the agency had to postpone in-person interviews, fingerprint and photo appointments, naturalization ceremonies and other services.

However, Democratic lawmakers, experts, former USCIS officials and current employees believe the agency’s fiscal crisis had been brewing well before the coronavirus crisis, fueled largely by the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies. An analysis by the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute shows that revenue from petition fees has declined in the past three consecutive fiscal years — a trend that ran parallel to dwindling petitions for programs the administration has limited or sought to dismantle entirely.

One USCIS employee who requested anonymity to speak freely said the furloughs would have been unnecessary. The threat of the furloughs, however, will continue to have an impact on workforce morale, the employee added.

“People are just completely exhausted by the back and forth of it,” the employee told CBS News. “By the constant uncertainty. By the fact that the letter also indicates this is really just another stay. Execution still may come. The feeling that this was a fake furlough threat held over us as a bargaining chip and that we’re merely pawns.”

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