USCIS cancels impending employee furloughs days ahead of deadline

This story was updated on Tuesday, Aug. 25 at 4:05 p.m. to reflect an additional statement from the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many USCIS employees.

Just five days before the deadline, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it’s found a way to avoid the impending employee furloughs that would have sidelined 70% of its workforce without pay at the end of the month.

USCIS expects it will have enough funding to maintain agency operations through the end of the fiscal year, the agency said Tuesday.

The agency initially said it would have to furlough 13,400 USCIS employees on Aug. 30 without emergency funding from Congress. But despite congressional reassurances that it understood the consequences of employees furloughs and wanted to work with USCIS to avoid them, senators went home for the August recess without passing the agency’s requested $1.2 billion in emergency funding into law.

As of late last week, USCIS was silent on the upcoming deadline and the workforce was resigned to the fact that furloughs would begin in the next few days, two employees told Federal News Network.

“Our workforce is the backbone of every USCIS accomplishment,” Joseph Edlow, the agency’s deputy director for policy, said Tuesday in a statement. “Their resilience and strength of character always serves the nation well, but in this year of uncertainty, they remain steadfast in their mission administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and protecting the American people, even as a furlough loomed before them.”

Though employee furloughs are canceled for now, USCIS said it has to make “unprecedented spending cuts” to avoid immediate hardship on its employees. Spending cuts will impact all aspects of the agency, USCIS said, especially its contracts.

“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,” Edlow said. “A return to normal operating procedures requires congressional intervention to sustain the agency through fiscal year 2021.”

USCIS found additional cost savings by “descoping” the federal contracts that help its adjudicators process and prepare case files, the agency said.

Naturalization ceremonies will continue. But adjudications and naturalizations will take longer, and wait times for pending case inquiries at the USCIS Contact Center and other case processing activities will also grow, the agency warned.

This is at least the third time USCIS employees have experienced a furlough delay. Employees were told to expect a furlough of at least 30 days but possibly longer.

Furloughs for 13,400 USCIS employees were initially scheduled for late July but were later pushed back to Aug. 3. The agency then extended the furlough deadline to Aug. 30 as more business, including an uptick in application and petition receipts, trickled in during the summer.

Because USCIS is a fee-for-service organization, it relies on the revenue it collects through work such as visitor petitions and citizenship applications to keep the agency running. The pandemic, USCIS said, had slashed its operating expenses and forced the agency to ask Congress for $1.2 billion in emergency funding to sustain operations at the upcoming start of the fiscal year.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents tens of thousands of USCIS employees and launched a national campaign to raise awareness about the impending furloughs, praised Tuesday’s news but said it sought a more permanent financial solution.

USCIS provided no guarantee it wouldn’t issue a new round of furlough notices to employees after the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

“Our members can rest easy tonight knowing their jobs are secure through the fiscal year, but our work is not finished,” Ken Palinkas, executive vice president of AFGE’s USCIS council, said Tuesday afternoon. “We are calling for long-term financial solutions from Congress in order to sustain the agency and increase the efficiency of pending cases and naturalization ceremonies. We will turn our attention to a long-term victory for the sake of our members and the critical work they do every day to keep our legal immigration system running smoothly.”

Several members of Congress have said they doubted the pandemic had truly decimated USCIS’ operating expenses in the way the agency had described, pointing to the administration’s own immigration policies as reasons for a gradual decline in revenue.

Maryland Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin (D) reiterated those doubts Tuesday in a statement,

“I’m glad to see USCIS reverse course on its unnecessary furlough plan that threatened the livelihoods of many Marylanders during this already difficult time,” Van Hollen said. “As we’ve seen, this administration — and the leadership currently installed at USCIS — have instituted policies that have undermined their employees’ work and contributed to the budget problems it currently faces. In addition to revoking its furlough plan, USCIS should immediately rescind the harmful policies and practices that have led to its budget shortfalls and instead work to improve its fiscal footing and fulfill its mission.”

Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner (D) have also expressed a desire to work with USCIS to develop a long term financial solution. The senators had urged USCIS last Friday to avoid the impending furloughs and said the agency had enough funds to continue to pay its workforce past the Aug. 30 deadline.

“While we differ with President Trump’s administration on many immigration policy matters and believe USCIS could benefit from better fiscal management, USCIS civil servants should not be forced to pay the price for this administration’s choices and other agency decisions that led to the current financial state of USCIS,” they said.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), who had co-sponsored legislation that would have provided USCIS with the emergency funding the agency said it needed, also applauded Tuesday’s announcement.

“This is an important step. However, more work remains,” Fortenberry said in a statement. “Here’s the bottom line: USCIS is made up of patriotic Americans tasked with protecting the integrity of our legal immigration system. I will continue to work on bipartisan and bicameral solutions to ensure that this essential agency is equipped to accomplish its national security mission.”

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