With the coronavirus pandemic closing offices and cutting deeply into its fees-based operating structure, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services may begin furloughs in July without a financial lifeline from Congress.
The looming crisis comes as USCIS is preparing to reopen offices next week. 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.
As of the June 4 reopening, visitors won’t be 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 will be required, with potential removal for identity verification purposes.
Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow said in an email to staff earlier this month that “given the unprecedented nature of the global pandemic, there is no historical data that can be used to project the scope and duration of COVID-19’s impact on USCIS’ revenue.”
“USCIS will exhaust its funding this summer, and without congressional intervention, we risk not being able to make payroll and will have to take drastic actions to keep the agency afloat,” he said.
USCIS is seeking $1.2 billion from Congress to help offset the agency’s shortfall. In return, the agency wants to raise fees by 10 percent to pay for the financial aid. Applications are expected to be down 61 percent through September, when the agency expects to run out of cash even as spending has been curtailed to mission-critical functions.
This week, Edlow told employees in an email obtained by CBS News that “a portion” of staff could be subjected to furloughs beginning July 20. The union representing USCIS employees was reportedly told that about 10,800 bargaining employees could face more than a monthlong furlough.
A USCIS spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, which first reported on Edlow’s email, that “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS has seen a dramatic decrease in revenue and is seeking a one-time emergency request for funding to ensure we can carry out our mission of administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity, and protecting the American people.”
“Importantly, this funding proposal protects American taxpayers by not adding to the deficit and requiring USCIS to pay the money back to the U.S. Treasury,” the statement added.
“The Administration supports efforts to ensure USCIS operations continue until fee revenues resume through a surcharge cost recovery approach that will result in no additional cost to the American taxpayer or increase the deficit,” a spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget told CBS News. “OMB has been working closely with DHS to identify mitigation strategies and supports a ‘pay it forward’ deficit neutral approach that ensures full cost recovery of any emergency supplemental.”
One USCIS officer told BuzzFeed that “agency leadership blaming this on the pandemic instead of horrible mismanagement and misguided policy priorities is insulting,” arguing that administration goals of reducing legal immigration were bound to hit the agency and its employees hard. “If we can’t process green cards and naturalize people, even for a short period of time, the effects will be felt for years. It’s really broad.”