US Immigration Agency Risks Furloughs Amid Financial Woes

By Suzanne Monyak
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Law360 (June 24, 2020, 6:21 PM EDT) -- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is preparing to furlough more than 70% of its workforce by the end of the summer unless Congress steps in to help as the agency hurtles toward a rapidly approaching budget shortfall.

The federal immigration agency, which is primarily funded with fees paid by immigrants and their employers, started sending out furlough notices to its employees Wednesday, according to a representative for the federal government employees' union.

Unless Congress intervenes and bails out the agency, around 13,400 of the agency's 18,700 employees will find themselves without a paycheck beginning Aug. 3, the agency said. USCIS is required to give furloughed employees at least 30 days' notice.

"Without congressional intervention, USCIS will need to administratively furlough approximately 13,400 employees," a USCIS spokesperson said in a statement to Law360 on Wednesday. "We continue to work with Congress to provide the necessary funding to avert this unfortunate consequence."

USCIS said in May that it would be requesting a one-time payout of $1.2 billion from Congress to help alleviate the agency's financial woes. If approved, the agency would then repay the money by imposing a 10% surcharge on immigration application fees.

This surcharge would come on top of the agency's already planned 21% average increase of visa application fees, which was finalized and sent to the White House's budget office for review in late May.

Testifying before Congress earlier this month, Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, implored lawmakers to provide the agency with the requested funding, both to protect its employees' jobs during the pandemic and to keep the agency operating and processing visa applications and renewals.

"We urge you in the strongest possible terms to take action to provide funds to USCIS specifically to prevent furloughs and keep the agency functioning," Kelley said. "Furloughs of this magnitude would make it entirely impossible for the agency to carry out more than a tiny fraction of its mission."

He also urged Congress to provide limits on the funds to ensure they did not go toward funding contractors instead of protecting employees' jobs.

A congressional spokesperson told Law360 that USCIS has yet to submit a formal request for the funding and that Congress is still in the process of evaluating the agency's need.

USCIS has blamed a "dramatic decrease in revenue" during the coronavirus pandemic and a drop in visa petitions for its budget shortfall. According to USCIS, the agency is predicting a 61% drop in petitions in the 2020 fiscal year.

Immigration lawyers, however, have pointed the finger at the Trump administration's immigration restrictions aimed at cutting back on legal immigration into the U.S. Notably, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation Monday barring foreign citizens from moving to the U.S. on a number of visas reserved for highly skilled workers through the end of 2020.

Ur Jaddou of America's Voice, who previously served as chief counsel at USCIS, said in a statement earlier this month that USCIS' budget shortfall is "a financial crisis of their own making."

"No, this is not the pandemic's doing," she said. "Instead, these furloughs are the direct result of three and half years of resolute opposition to legal immigration, which increased costs and drove down revenue, leaving the agency in financial crisis."

--Editing by Abbie Sarfo.

Update: The story has been updated with more details on USCIS' funding request.

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