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The US Immigration System Won't Come To A Halt After Massive Work Furloughs Were Canceled

More than 13,000 US Citizenship and Immigration Services employees were set to be furloughed after a drop in revenue.

Last updated on August 25, 2020, at 1:35 p.m. ET

Posted on August 25, 2020, at 12:32 p.m. ET

Elise Amendola / AP

New citizens, socially distanced, are sworn in outside the US Citizenship and Immigration Services building in Lawrence, Massachusetts, June 4.

The US agency that oversees key parts of the immigration system, including the processing of citizenship, green cards, and asylum applications, has canceled its planned furlough this week of nearly 70% of its staff, according to an internal email sent to staff Tuesday morning.

The planned furlough of more than 13,000 US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) employees on Aug. 30 was set to bring the immigration system to a halt, delaying the processing of green card applications and setting back citizenship ceremonies.

In a statement, Joseph Edlow, acting head of USCIS, confirmed the decision, but said “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 added.

USCIS officials have warned since spring that the agency, which is mostly funded by fees, was running out of money due to a decline in applications during the pandemic and needed an influx of $1.2 billion from Congress.

Edlow said in his staff email that while the financial outlook for the agency had “temporarily improved” due to an increase in revenue, they would still need a long-term fix from Congress.

He added that the agency would be implementing “severe cost cutting efforts” that will have an impact on operations.

Without “congressional action,” these cost-cutting measures will result in issues, like increased case-processing times and possible longer wait periods for those seeking to become US citizens, he wrote.

“I want to be clear though: Our problems are not yet solved. We still need Congress to act on the assurances they continue to provide,” he added. “Without congressional action during this budget cycle, a future furlough scenario is still possible.”

While the reasons for the funding shortage were 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 was not.

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 July, USCIS officials announced a finalized policy that will increase fees for those applying for citizenship and other benefits, while also charging for asylum applications as a way to collect more funds. The administration has also pushed through a policy that allows the government to deny permanent residency or restrict certain visas to immigrants who officials believe are likely to use public benefits.

In the run-up to the furloughs, some USCIS employees were panicking as they made plans to survive without a paycheck. Some were spared, while others were not. Of the 2,200 staffers in the division that runs the refugee and asylum work, 1,500 received furlough notices. The planned furloughs has hurt agency morale and many were questioning whether it was tied to an overall intention of cutting immigration.

Even with the news of the canceled furlough, some agency employees worried it was only a form of temporary relief.

“Every colleague I’ve connected with in the last hour or so has expressed a mixture of anger, distrust, and exhaustion. There’s little relief here. The sense is that maybe the guillotine is delayed,” said one USCIS employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to comment publicly on the matter.

Others hoped it would lead to changes in policy to encourage more applications.

“I'm grateful that the agency will continue to be apply to employ the dedicated cadre of folks who work here and that we will be able to continue to provide services to our customers, but I hope this stressful exercise leads to reforms such as rolling back unnecessary vetting that costs money and has not turned up additional fraud or security concerns,” said another agency employee.

While Edlow attributed the decision to avoid furloughs to an increase in revenue since the drop in money in the spring and internal spending cuts, the agency had been facing increased pressure from both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill to avoid the mass furlough.

In a bipartisan letter sent to USCIS last week, congressional members, including Republican Sen. John Cornyn, noted that the agency was expected to carry over more than $200 million into the next fiscal year, which begins in October. They urged USCIS to not furlough the bulk of its employees.

Then, over the weekend, the House passed a bill that was aimed at shoring up the shortfall in USCIS funds. The bill would increase fees for those seeking “premium processing” of immigration applications as a way to add increased revenue for the agency.

“I and my coworkers are relieved that we won't be furloughed, and we can continue our good work on immigration. However, the fact that the announcement still requires more cost-cutting, is still worrying, especially saying in the future a furlough scenario is still possible,” said one USCIS employee. “This seems to still be a game of politics, which is frustrating.”

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