The federal agency responsible for granting citizenship and providing immigration benefits on Tuesday canceled the furlough of more than 13,000 employees, a move that had been scheduled for later this month and would’ve brought the immigration system to a halt.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, told Congress in May that it expected to furlough the majority of its workforce amid a budget shortfall. The agency had asked for $1.2 billion.
USCIS attributed the decision to cancel the furlough scheduled to begin August 30 to “unprecedented spending cuts and a steady increase in daily incoming revenue and receipts.” The agency said it expects to maintain operations through the end of fiscal year 2020.
“However, averting this furlough comes at a severe operational cost that will increase backlogs and wait times across the board, with no guarantee we can avoid future furloughs. A return to normal operating procedures requires congressional intervention to sustain the agency through fiscal year 2021,” Joseph Edlow, USCIS deputy director for policy, said in a statement.
The agency had initially anticipated furloughs starting at the beginning of August, until deciding to push back the date. But stalled talks in Congress over the next coronavirus relief bill – the anticipated vehicle for funding – diminished the possibility of providing the funding anytime soon. Over the weekend, the House unanimously passed legislation that would’ve temporarily kept the agency afloat but it still needs to be taken up by the Senate.
In an internal email to employees, Edlow also put the onus on Congress, saying that “our problems are not yet solved.”
Lawmakers sent a slew of letters in recent days urging USCIS to avert the furloughs. Last week, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Chairwoman of the Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations Subcommittee Kathleen Rice of New York sent a letter to Edlow and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf underscoring the importance of keeping USCIS running.
“We stand ready to work with you to ensure that USCIS can continue operating and its employees continue to receive paychecks. While this process moves forward, it is vital that our legal immigration system continues to function at full capacity,” the chairs wrote.
USCIS, a fee-funded agency, has been at the center of President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda. Over the last three years, the agency has rolled out a slew of changes that have made applying for immigration benefits more challenging.
The immigration agency typically continues most operations during lapses in funding, such as last year’s government shutdown. However, during the pandemic, the agency suspended in-person services, including all interviews and naturalization ceremonies, which contributed to a drop in revenue.
CNN’s Geneva Sands contributed to this report.