Law360 (July 1, 2020, 6:37 PM EDT) -- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will celebrate Independence Day with a series of socially distanced naturalization ceremonies during the first week of July, kicking off a larger effort to catch up on citizenship cases that were delayed by COVID-19 by the end of the month, the agency announced Wednesday.
The push comes as USCIS employees have begun receiving furlough notices due to a budget shortfall triggered by COVID-19 slowdowns. While the country continues to see rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, the agency aims to slash its naturalization backlog before August, when up to 70% of its 18,700 employees could depart on unpaid leave.
"All USCIS operations, including naturalization ceremonies, will be impacted by a furlough," an agency spokesperson told Law360. "In the event of a furlough, we will continue to conduct naturalization ceremonies, but we anticipate it will be on a more limited basis."
Since USCIS is fee-funded, COVID-19 office closures resulted in a severe budget shortfall. In May, the agency announced that it would seek a $1.2 billion emergency bailout, which it plans to repay by imposing a 10% surcharge on future visa applications. As of July 1, however, it had made little headway on Capitol Hill.
USCIS field offices closed and naturalization ceremonies were suspended in March as the country entered a state of emergency, only resuming after USCIS restarted nonemergency operations on June 4.
The slowdown stoked frustration among would-be U.S. citizens. One class action filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania last month accused USCIS of leaving hundreds of individuals without the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship despite expedited naturalization procedures approved by Congress.
By the time USCIS offices reopened in June, approximately 110,000 individuals were waiting to take their oaths of allegiance, the USCIS spokesperson said.
But by the end of the month, USCIS was already more than halfway through that backlog. According to its Wednesday announcement, the agency "naturalized approximately 64,500 new citizens" in June and "anticipates completing nearly all postponed administrative naturalization ceremonies by the end of July."
"I am proud of the USCIS employees who have worked diligently to ensure that our agency can conduct safe, yet meaningful, naturalization ceremonies during these difficult times," USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow said in a statement.
To clear its backlog before the bulk of its workforce is sent home, the agency must naturalize another 45,500 new Americans this month.
--Additional reporting by Suzanne Monyak and Matthew Santoni. Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.
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