The US agency that oversees and administers key facets of the immigration system, including the processing of citizenship, green cards, and asylum applications, has taken its first steps to dramatically roll back its capabilities by issuing furlough notices to more than 13,000 employees.
If Congress does not provide US Citizenship and Immigration Services with emergency funding before Aug. 3, the employees, who make up more than 60% of all staffers, will be furloughed for up to three months due to the budget crisis. USCIS is a fee-funded agency that receives most of its money through applications for immigration benefits.
While the reasons for the funding shortage are debated — agency officials cite a massive decline in immigration applications due to the pandemic, while immigrant advocates and experts argue that the Trump administration’s policies have played a part in the budget issues — the impact to the immigration system is not.
“Backlogs will grow longer. People will wait longer to become citizens, get green cards. Asylum will grind to a halt,” said Amanda Baran, a former immigration policy official at the Department of Homeland Security who is now a consultant. The number of furloughed employees, she said, would lead to “devastating consequences for people trying to enter and for those living here.”
"It essentially will shut down the immigration system — sort of the final nail in the coffin,” said Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association and a former agency official. “The anticipated agency furloughs will not only result in the loss of employment for thousands of US workers, it will also bring halt the US immigration system to a grinding halt, negatively impacting families, US businesses, educational institutions, medical facilities, and churches throughout the United States.”
In recent days, USCIS employees have been waiting nervously to receive notices. Some have been spared, while others have not. Of the 2,200 staffers in the division that runs the refugee and asylum work, 1,500 received furlough notices. There’s worry among some that the Trump administration isn’t concerned about immigration and asylum officers being out of work. Overall, the mood within the agency has grown dour as many expect the furloughs to be executed.
USCIS employees, according to one agency source, are “freaking out.” Some employees are even making efforts to secure work elsewhere to make ends meet if it comes to it.
Joseph Edlow, the acting head of USCIS, told employees in an email that he was continuing to meet and brief congressional members and that he was working to avoid “a furlough entirely.” The agency is seeking $1.2 billion to make up its budget shortfall. Multiple congressional sources with knowledge of the funding debate are hopeful that the money is provided to avoid the mass furloughs, though advocates are pushing for concessions in return.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS has seen a 50% drop in receipts and incoming fees starting in March and estimates that application and petition receipts will stay well below plan through the end of Fiscal Year 2020,” an agency spokesperson said. “This dramatic drop in revenue has made it impossible for our agency to operate at full capacity. Without additional funding from Congress before August 3, USCIS has no choice but to administratively furlough a substantial portion of our workforce.”
Edlow told Roll Call last week that he hopes Congress will include the funding in a pandemic aid bill next month. “Putting something for USCIS into that package is what we’re hearing is probably where it’s being considered right now,” he said.
He also acknowledged the impact of the furlough cut: “In terms of anyone applying for a green card, for adjustment of status, or applying for naturalization, the wait times are going to increase substantially to be adjudicated. For non-immigrant visas, any sort of requests for employment authorization, any requests … to change or extend a visitor status of some sort — all of those, the wait times are going to increase.”
USCIS officials declined to make Edlow available for an interview with BuzzFeed News.
The agency’s place in the immigration system is integral: USCIS officers provide work permits, conduct initial asylum screenings that determine whether immigrants can make their case for protection in the US, and issue green cards and naturalizations, among other tasks.
USCIS has, however, undergone a radical transformation under the Trump administration as its officers have been forced to implement policies that have restricted asylum at the southern border and made it tougher to apply for certain visas.
In November, USCIS officials pushed a proposal to increase fees for those applying for citizenship and other benefits, while also charging for asylum applications as a way to collect more funds. At the time, the agency proposal explained that the increase in fees was necessary because it projected “operating costs to exceed projected total revenue.”
Some experts and advocates pointed part of the blame for the lack of necessary funds to policies implemented under the Trump administration that have led to more onerous processing and additional interviews for certain visas. The administration also pushed through a policy that allowed the government to deny permanent residency or restrict certain visas to immigrants who officials believe are likely to use public benefits.