asylum seekers and refugees become citizens Mostly asylum seekers and refugees become naturalized U.S. citizens at a ceremony June 20, 2016, in New York. (Official DHS photo by Jetta Disco)

USCIS Moves Toward Furloughs with No Relief Package in Sight

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services appears poised to move forward with furlough plans with no relief from Congress in sight to help fill the agency’s shortfall.

The Senate left Friday without a deal for the next coronavirus stimulus, and House lawmakers left for the August recess the week before. The Senate isn’t scheduled to be back until after Labor Day, while the House of Representatives is staying away until Sept. 14. During the recess, both parties will be focused on the presidential nominating conventions and congressional campaigns.

The two sides are far apart on relief, with Democrats initially offering a package of about $3.5 trillion and later offering to cut that by $1 trillion, and the administration is so far not budging from its original $1 trillion package.

USCIS was hoping to get $1.2 billion in that package. A congressional aide told CNN that there is no “plan B” to get rescue funds to the agency before September.

Last month, thousands of staffers at USCIS who were facing furloughs Aug. 3 at the cash-strapped agency were notified that they had been given a reprieve until Aug. 30. The furloughs are expected to leave 13,400 employees out of work for 30 to 90 days unless Congress comes through with a bailout.

“In the past few months, USCIS has taken action to avert a fiscal crisis, including limiting spending to salary and mission-critical activities,” USCIS said in a statement. “Without congressional intervention, USCIS will have to take drastic actions to keep the agency solvent.”

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.

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.

On July 31, USCIS announced it would be hiking fees by an average of 20 percent effective Oct. 2 to help cover payroll and operations costs. Fees were last increased in December 2016. The new rule also includes a $10 discount for people who file online.

“USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures and make adjustments based on that analysis,” said Joseph Edlow, USCIS deputy director for policy. “These overdue adjustments in fees are necessary to efficiently and fairly administer our nation’s lawful immigration system, secure the homeland and protect Americans.”

Last month, before the furlough delay was announced, Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) sent a letter to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Edlow highlighting revised revenue estimates that show the agency will end the fiscal year with a surplus and not its once-projected $571 million deficit.

“With regard to your projected deficit for FY 2021, we are committed to addressing this issue in the next coronavirus supplemental so that USCIS can continue accomplishing its missions without a furlough,” the senators wrote. “Now that USCIS is no longer projecting a deficit for FY 2020, you must not sit by as thousands of American jobs are on the line, particularly during a time of unprecedented unemployment.”

USCIS told contractors at the beginning of June 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.

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.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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