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USCIS official: ‘Every office’ would be hit by agency furloughs

About 13,400 employees would be furloughed without $1.2 billion in emergency funding from Congress

A $1.2 billion cash infusion sought by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would largely be used to pay employees and avoid furloughs that would affect the entire agency, a top official said. 

“There is not one directorate, one operational directorate, that is taking a larger hit than another,” Joseph Edlow, deputy director for policy at USCIS, told CQ Roll Call. “Every directorate, every office is going to be affected by this.”

Agency officials are pressing lawmakers on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees and elsewhere to provide the onetime emergency appropriation they say is needed to avoid the furlough of 13,400 employees, or more than two-thirds of the almost 20,000-strong USCIS workforce. The cash infusion would replace fees on immigration-related applications and petitions that have fallen 50 percent since March due to the pandemic and economic lockdown, officials said.  

[USCIS informs 13,000 federal employees of potential furloughs]

Based on an internal USCIS document, the $1.2 billion request breaks down into $571.2 million to support operations in fiscal 2020, which ends Sept. 30, and $650 million in carryover funds to ensure that sufficient resources are available at the start of the next fiscal year. 

Of the $571.2 million in fiscal 2020 aid, $373.4 million would be used for payroll and $197.8 million for other expenses including rent, FBI name checks and fingerprinting, and information technology contracts.

Edlow said lawmakers have responded positively, and he is hopeful that if Congress takes up a pandemic aid bill next month, it will include the emergency funds. 

“Putting something for USCIS into that package is what we’re hearing is probably where it’s being considered right now,” he said.

Slight improvement

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee, said the agency’s fee revenue has risen since USCIS requested the aid last month. 

“They’re giving us new estimates because the original estimates have changed,” she said Thursday. 

A USCIS aide confirmed that receipts “have slightly improved recently.” But the aide said it is difficult to predict how the pandemic will affect future revenue and that the agency is still requesting $1.2 billion.

The USCIS has proposed imposing a 10 percent surcharge on existing fees to raise the money to pay back the $1.2 billion. Edlow estimated it can be paid back in “roughly three years.”

If no aid is approved, furloughs would begin in August. Edlow said if that happens, the agency will be left with a “skeleton crew” that will “make it very, very difficult to sustain our critical mission.” The number of asylum officers would take a big hit, as well as adjudicators in the field and service centers, he said. As a result, the backlog for addressing asylum applications would rise. 

Delays would ensue for most, if not all, services.

“In terms of anyone applying for a green card, for adjustment of status, or applying for naturalization, the wait times are going to increase substantially to be adjudicated,” he said. “For non-immigrant visas, any sort of requests for employment authorization, any requests … to change or extend a visitor status of some sort — all of those, the wait times are going to increase.”

Edlow said furloughs would slow the process for people waiting to become U.S. citizens. But for the approximately 108,000 who already have met the requirements, he said the agency aims to get them fully naturalized before the end of July. 

“Our hope is to not move into this furlough with those people having not had the opportunity to be naturalized,” he said.  

Conditions sought

The funding request has drawn skepticism from some immigration advocates. The American Immigration Lawyers Association last month urged appropriators to attach conditions to any emergency funding it approves.

“AILA believes that Congress should appropriate temporary funding to USCIS only if it includes safeguards related to transparency, accountability and efficiency,” the organization’s president, Marketa Lindt, said in a statement. “It is clear that USCIS, an agency that only a few years ago had significant budget surpluses, has run itself into the ground through its own policies and inefficient processes.”

Some critics blame the budget shortfall, in part, on mismanagement of the agency and Trump administration immigration policies.

“The agency has made several questionable policy decisions over the past three and a half years, including failing to implement a timely and moderate fee increase, as well as initiating a surge of red tape and staff hiring that likely led USCIS from surplus to insolvency,” wrote Doug Rand and Lindsay Milliken in an analysis published June 15 in the NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy.

Rand, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama administration, is now the co-founder of Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship.  

Edlow acknowledged improvements can be made at the agency. But he insisted the pandemic, not Trump administration actions, is the main cause of the drop in fee revenue. 

He said he has not seen “anything in the budgets and the analysis that I have studied, the receipts that I have studied, to suggest that there is any spike or drop in our receipts that is outside historical norms based on any policy that has been implemented during this administration.”

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The proposed surcharge is on top of other fee increases the agency has proposed. Last November, USCIS proposed a rule that would almost double the naturalization application fee to $1,170, impose a new $275 fee for “Dreamers” to renew their legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program and a $50 fee for asylum applications, among other fee increases.

Fees have been raised five times since the agency was created in 2003, most recently in 2016. Officials said the latest proposed increase is needed to cover costs at the agency, which depends almost entirely on fees for its budget. The agency submitted a final proposed rule to the Office of Management and Budget last month.  

Camila DeChalus, Tanvi Misra and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report. 

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