A union representing government workers is ringing the alarm that employees at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services could soon be furloughed due to funding shortfalls the agency blames on the coronavirus pandemic.
The American Federation of Government Employees said it received notice that nearly 11,000 employees at the agency that processes immigration benefits could be furloughed in the weeks ahead, according to a message sent to its members Thursday. AFGE President Everett Kelley is urging Congress to approve $1.2 billion in additional funding for the agency to avert the furloughs, a union spokesman said.
“Furloughs of this magnitude will undoubtedly cripple the agency’s ability to carry out its mission,” Kelley said in letters to Senate and House lawmakers Wednesday. “With a loss of nearly 11,000 employees, work and visitor visa petitions, asylum and citizenship/naturalization applications, green cards, and refugee applications will not be processed.”
The agency estimates it will exhaust its funding by the end of the summer, and has asked Congress for emergency appropriations.
“Without congressional intervention, USCIS will need to administratively furlough a portion of our employees on approximately July 20,” said a spokesperson for the agency. “We continue to work with Congress to provide the necessary funding to avert this unfortunate consequence.”
Buzzfeed News first reported that furloughs could take place in the coming months.
Deficits Projected in 2019
The agency has said it’s seen a dramatic decrease in revenue from visa applications and other immigration benefits in the wake of the coronavirus, and predicts petition receipts will drop about 61% through the end of the fiscal year. USCIS offices have been closed to the public since March, suspending certain services, and President
USCIS is a fee-funded agency, as opposed to most other government agencies that receive appropriations from Congress.
But in a proposed rule to update the agency’s fees, USCIS was already projecting an annual average deficit of $1.26 billion if revenues didn’t increase. The final version of that rule was sent for White House review Wednesday.
The agency’s issues with solvency are “a combination of factors,” said Ur Jaddou, who served as chief counsel to USCIS from 2014 to 2017. Jaddou is now the director of DHS Watch at America’s Voice, which advocates for immigration reform.
The agency’s costs have mainly risen because new policies put in place lead officers to spend additional time on more complex cases, Jaddou said.
“The backlog grows, because the same adjudicator who was getting to 10 forms in a day is now getting to six forms in a day,” she said. “They don’t have enough money to keep up with their growing backlog.”
No Officers, No Decisions
Without USCIS officers to process and administer immigration benefits, there would be an “extensive impact” on employers of foreign workers, said Nandini Nair, immigration partner at Greenspoon Marder LLP in Edison, N.J.
A reduced USCIS workforce would mean delays in the generation of receipt notices for immigration filings, and those notices are necessary for employers to onboard workers and pre-verify employment authorization, Nair said. “If there are delays in that initial step, that could put employers in a precarious situation with their workforce.”
And the longer the agency is understaffed, the longer those processing times, which are already months long in some cases, will likely become, she said.
“If you can’t onboard an employee, or verify their continued authorization to work in the U.S., an employer will have to make difficult decisions on whether to terminate that person because they don’t want to be in noncompliance of immigration rules,” Nair warned. “It could add to unemployment just by this small act.”