Law360 (July 14, 2020, 8:23 PM EDT) -- Facing furloughs that would sideline 75% of the agency's staff, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services union reps said Tuesday that the pandemic and President Donald Trump's exclusionary immigration policies were to blame for its financial woes.
The agency needs $1.2 billion to make it through the end of the year and is in talks with Congress to get it, but if the money doesn't come through by Aug. 3, some 13,000 employees will be sidelined without pay for at least 30 days, union reps said.
While the coronavirus pandemic — which stopped most USCIS operations in their tracks for several months this spring — dealt a heavy blow to the agency that is largely funded through visa application fees, the union reps said its finances had already been pummeled by a series of immigration restrictions handed down by the Trump administration.
The travel ban and increasing limitations on asylum-seekers, refugees and international students have meant that the fees USCIS collects have dipped significantly, according to the union.
"So what we're asking the government to do is to furnish us with the money that the government has essentially taken away through these travel bans, these applications and petitions that we can't receive right now," union rep Danielle Spooner said. "I don't think that this administration knows how much income these people produce by coming to the United States."
Another example is H-1B visas, which Trump has ordered USCIS to stop issuing for the rest of the year. Extensions can still be processed, but people outside the country seeking to come in on the specialty visa are out of luck, and Spooner said the agency normally spends quite a bit of time and resources processing those applications.
They also bring in a lot of money, since many of the applications are expedited, Spooner said, which means the would-be immigrants pay an additional fee for priority processing. All that's abruptly stopped, she said.
When the agency began sending out furlough notices in June, union reps said Tuesday, they were flooded by inquiries from concerned employees who were unsure about their future.
Many employees have already started planning to work stopgap jobs during their furlough, chauffeuring via Uber or delivering food through Doordash, AFGE Local 2660 head Nicole Guess said. But they have to seek special dispensation from the agency to do that, because staff are generally barred from working another job during furlough, she said.
Others are tapping into their retirement accounts, according to Guess.
For those who escaped being furloughed, the work will be more than they can possibly do on their own, the union reps said, meaning that the backlog of applications will only grow.
This affects USCIS' bottom line too, because it only receives the funds from the fees once an application has been processed, Guess said.
The agency has tried to make up the budget deficit by hiking application fees by some 21%, but fees may be rising higher than that if Congress ends up approving the funds, which USCIS requested in May. At the time, it said if the money was approved, the agency would pay the money back by raising application fees another 10%.
--Additional reporting by Dorothy Atkins and Suzanne Monyak. Editing by Kelly Duncan.
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