The federal agency responsible for granting citizenship, providing immigration benefits, and processing visa applications is bracing to furlough thousands of employees in August — a move that could grind the US immigration system to a halt.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services, a fee-funded agency, says it’s at a loss for money after having to close offices and put services on pause during the pandemic.
Over recent weeks, the agency has been preparing to furlough more than half of its workforce unless Congress provides additional funding. Notices went out to staff this week that can potentially be furloughed, according to an agency spokesperson.
USCIS has been at the center of some of the Trump administration’s most significant immigration policies, including a litany of regulations intended to curb asylum in the United States.
The possible furlough of 13,400 of the agency’s nearly 20,000 employees risks disrupting USCIS operations.
“If you were to take a straight two-third cut, that’s going to slow everything to a crawl,” said Ur Jaddou, director of DHS Watch and former USCIS chief counsel.
Michael Knowles, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local union that represents Washington, DC area employees, similarly expressed concerns over what the furloughs might mean for the agency and those who depend on its services.
“It’s not in our national interest to let the immigration service fail. You need a functioning immigration service,” Knowles said. “The damage would be long lasting.”
How Congress is reacting: While USCIS is sounding the alarm over lack of funding, the agency has not submitted a formal funding request to Congress.
“The Trump White House is responsible for requesting supplemental funding, but all they have sent Congress is a one-page letter that provides virtually no information on the shortfall or proposed remedies,” said Evan Hollander, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee.
“Despite this egregious lack of communication, House Democrats are closely tracking USCIS’ financial difficulties and are prepared to discuss solutions as part of negotiations on the next phase of coronavirus response legislation,” he added.
A congressional aide told CNN that Democratic staff sent USCIS a proposal two weeks ago that lays out a plan to pay back the funds that might be appropriated, but haven’t heard back from the agency.
Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget in late June, urging action from the administration.
Leahy said he spoke with USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow who informally requested $1.2 billion in emergency funding to get USCIS through the end of the calendar year. But no formal request has come through.