Dems Say No To USCIS Furloughs, Finding Budget Surplus

By Alyssa Aquino
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Law360 (July 23, 2020, 9:30 PM EDT) -- House and Senate Democrats called on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services not to furlough 70% of its workforce, contradicting the agency by saying its budget is running a surplus for the 2020 fiscal year.

Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., top Democrats on the Senate's Appropriations Committee, claimed that even though USCIS had predicted ending the fiscal year with a $571 million deficit, revenue estimates now indicate "a surplus and a sufficient balance to pay its employees for the remainder of the fiscal year."

"Yet, despite this welcome reversal in revenue estimates, USCIS has perplexingly chosen to proceed with furloughs of over 13,000 federal employees," the senators wrote in a Tuesday letter to USCIS Deputy Director Joseph Edlow as well as Chad Wolf, the acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In the House, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., also found that USCIS' financial state has improved and urged it to postpone its furlough plans, her office told Law360 on Thursday.

As of July 10, the surplus stood at $121 million, according to Jay Tilton, the press secretary for the senate committee.

However, Tilton noted that the revenue forecasts are subject to change.

The Democrats would not say how they discovered the alleged surplus, and USCIS refused to confirm their findings.

USCIS spokesperson Jessica Collins said Thursday that though its receipts "have improved recently," its $1.2 billion bail-out request to Congress from May has not changed.

"If we do not receive assistance from Congress and revenue continues at the current pace, we could possibly cover our planned expenses through the end of the fiscal year ... but we would not be able to sustain operations in FY 2021," she said.

Leahy and Tester said in their letter that they are planning on addressing the agency's fiscal year 2021 funding needs in the next coronavirus supplemental bill.

"During this pandemic with record unemployment, needlessly forcing these hardworking Americans into unemployment will ... put an untold number of families into unnecessary financial distress," they said.

USCIS, which processes green card applications and requests for asylum, revealed last month that a budget shortfall would force it to furlough 13,400 of its 18,700 employees starting Aug. 3, unless Congress intervened. It said that it had attempted to avert the financial crisis over the past few months by slashing its spending to payroll and mission-critical activities.

USCIS is primarily funded with application fees paid by immigrants and their employers, but is expected to fall into a "crippling budget shortfall" due to a months-long decline in immigration applications because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to an agency statement in June.

However, the American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing the agency's workers, say that President Donald Trump's restrictionist immigration policies are also to blame for USCIS' financial crisis. The travel ban and increased limits on asylum-seekers, refugees and international students have decreased the fees the agency collects, the union said.

The agency has said in past statements that it plans on repaying its loan request to Congress by adding a 10% surcharge on immigration applications.

Those fees would stack with the agency's plans to increase visa application fees by an average of 21%. On Wednesday, the White House budget office wrapped up its review of the proposed price hikes, meaning that the final rule instituting the increased costs will soon go into effect.

--Additional reporting by Suzanne Monyak and Nadia Dreid. Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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