Thousands of staffers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received furlough notices this week advising affected employees that they could be out of a paycheck for 30 to 90 days unless Congress comes through with a bailout.
The agency suspended in-person services on March 18 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with asylum offices rescheduling interviews and naturalization ceremonies postponed. The issuance of green cards has also been impacted by restrictions put in place by the administration. This has cut deeply into the agency’s fees-based operating structure.
Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow said in a statement last week that “the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are long-reaching and pervasive, leaving few unscathed in its wake.”
“USCIS is still experiencing those very effects, which began with an alarming drop in applications at the end of March. Forecasts predict a crippling budget shortfall that requires assistance from Congress to allow USCIS to maintain current operations,” Edlow said.
USCIS notified Congress of the shortfall on May 15 and requested $1.2 billion in emergency funding, including $571.2 million to support operations for fiscal 2020, to be paid back over about three years with a 10 percent surcharge added to applications.
“Both the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget have written to Congress supporting this proposal,” Edlow noted. “Without congressional action before August 3, USCIS will need to furlough over 13,000 staff members, which will have tremendous negative impacts on our mission administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity, and protecting the American people.”
“We urge Congress to provide the funding needed to pay our dedicated staff and ensure our operations continue uninterrupted during these unprecedented times,” he added.
A spokesman for the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee told Government Executive that even though DHS and OMB have sent letters supporting congressional appropriation of the funds, Congress had still not yet received a formal request for the money from the Trump administration.
Federal News Network reported Monday that about 13,400 USCIS employees — more than two-thirds of the agency’s workforce — would be receiving furlough notices on or before July 2, a 30-day advance notice required by law that poises the agency to temporarily reduce staff starting Aug. 3.
“Though we continue to have productive conversations with Congress, we want employees who may be furloughed to have sufficient time to prepare,” an agency spokesman told the outlet.
The notices told staff they would be placed in non-duty and non-pay status for 30 to 90 days. “At this time, we do not reasonably anticipate the need for a furlough of 90 days or more,” the notice said. “However, should additional furlough days be necessary, you will be issued another notice.”
USCIS told contractors a month ago that the agency was “reviewing its entire contract portfolio and future requirements to prioritize those that provide the most critical mission essential services.”
“USCIS must ensure mission critical operations continue and funds are prioritized for our employee payroll,” the agency said in a notice posted on beta.sam.gov.
USCIS field offices and asylum offices began reopening at the beginning of the month for non-emergency face-to-face services, with application support centers resuming service at a later date. Visitors aren’t allowed in USCIS facilities if they have COVID-19 symptoms or have been in contact with coronavirus patients in the past 14 days. Visitors can’t linger in offices for more than 15 minutes before the start of a scheduled appointment. Masks are required, with potential removal for identity verification purposes.
The notice to contractors said leadership has been “exploring all possible opportunities to curtail spending where necessary,” and “as decisions are made on contract actions, USCIS’ Contracting Officers will be coordinating with the affected contractors.”
The agency said it “will continue to communicate with our industry partners on our financial situation and how it will and may impact contract opportunities” on sites sources such as beta.sam.gov and https://www.uscis.gov/uscis-contracting, along with updates including any changes to future requirements on DHS’s Acquisition Planning Forecast System (apfs.dhs.gov). USCIS’ next quarterly conference call with industry is scheduled for July 28.
“These are trying and unprecedented times for USCIS,” the agency said. “We certainly appreciate your collaboration and understanding as we partner to overcome our fiscal challenges and continue to delivery on USCIS’ mission. We will keep you abreast of any new developments and, as always, are fully committed to timely, honest, and transparent communications with our valued industry partners.”