Ken Cuccinelli, center, acting director for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Homeland Security Department, walks on Capitol Hill on March 12 in between briefings on the coronavirus.

Ken Cuccinelli, center, acting director for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Homeland Security Department, walks on Capitol Hill on March 12 in between briefings on the coronavirus. Susan Walsh/AP

Employees Concerned After Agency Threatens Furloughs Over Budget Shortfall

Employees ask Congress to "please bail us out."

The federal agency in charge of immigration services is threatening “drastic actions” aimed at the workforce due to a budget shortfall, leaving workers panicked and unclear on what the future holds for them. 

Officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a fee-funded agency, told employees in recent days that a significant drop off in application processing due to the novel coronavirus pandemic has led to an unexpected loss in revenue, potentially leaving the agency unable to meet payroll. USCIS is asking Congress for a $1.2 billion cash injection to help offset the losses, saying it will increase its fees by 10% to reimburse the appropriation. 

“Given the unprecedented nature of the global pandemic, there is no historical data that can be used to project the scope and duration of COVID-19’s impact on USCIS’ revenue," Joseph Edlow, USCIS' deputy director for policy, wrote in an email to employees. “USCIS will exhaust its funding this summer, and without congressional intervention, we risk not being able to make payroll and will have to take drastic actions to keep the agency afloat.”

The email was first reported by BuzzFeed News. USCIS first brought its request to Congress on May 15 and is asking for the $1.2 billion over a two-year period. 

Employees who spoke to Government Executive said they fear the agency will have to furlough workers absent such intervention. The move would be an unusual one for USCIS, which is generally exempt from furloughs during shutdowns or sequestrations due to the nature of its funding. Aside from another agency-wide email from Chief Financial Officer Kika Scott saying the agency is reviewing contracts to squeeze more money out of its budget, employees said they have been left in the dark about what to expect going forward.

“Some people, especially those who have spouses out of work, are completely freaking out,” said one USCIS employee. “Others, I think, are more ‘wait and see.’ ” The employee added the workforce’s anxiety and uncertainty is heightened by everyone working remotely and a lack of face-to-face interactions. 

The uncertainty is causing significant distress among the USCIS workforce. 

"All the employees I know fear for their jobs and the future of the agency," said Michael Knowles, an asylum officer and head of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents USCIS employees in the Washington area.

A USCIS spokesperson declined to elaborate on what the agency’s “drastic actions” would entail.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS has seen a dramatic decrease in revenue and is seeking a one-time emergency request for funding to ensure we can carry out our mission of administering our nation's lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and protecting the American people,” the spokesperson said. 

Edlow noted USCIS is in a different position than most federal agencies, whose normal appropriations have been unaffected—and in many cases actually boosted—as a result of the pandemic. 

“As a fee-funded agency, USCIS has been directly impacted by the global pandemic,” Edlow said. “This is in stark contrast to congressionally appropriated agencies, whose budgets are not impacted by fluctuations in revenue based on application and petition receipt levels.”

He added USCIS has already taken some measures to “tighten our budget across the board” and those steps were “felt acutely” across the agency’s program offices, but were ultimately insufficient given the shortfalls. Government Executive reported just prior to the pandemic USCIS had implemented a hiring freeze for all immigration services positions. While agency officials told employees the current financial woes were tied entirely to the coronavirus pandemic, as long ago as December it told applicants with job offers their start dates were delayed indefinitely as “the Office of Field Operations is currently under a hiring freeze due to fiscal year 2020 budgetary constraints.” The decision to pause hiring for most positions followed a hiring surge at USCIS for asylum officers. Ken Cuccinelli, acting Homeland Security Department deputy secretary who is also serving as USCIS director, last year announced the agency would boost its asylum office workforce by 50% and add hundreds of new support staff.

Knowles said Trump administration policies to limit asylum and otherwise restrict legal immigration have also impacted the agency’s fee collections. 

“If you put all of those cases together and the fact that people don’t have money or don’t want to spend their money on applications,” Knowles said, “all of those things seriously disrupt the flow of revenue.”

Last fiscal year, asylum officers were deployed to the southern border to process the surge of cases that have piled up in the Southwest. USCIS estimated 60-90 were assigned to detention facilities or Border Patrol stations along the U.S.-Mexico border per week in fiscal 2019. Other USCIS employees deployed on a volunteer basis to Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help conduct operations within the purview of those agencies. 

USCIS declined to elaborate on how it determined the funding issue stemmed entirely from causes related to the pandemic. 

Scott, the USCIS CFO, told employees the agency has seen a 50% drop in receipts and incoming fees since March. She added that despite steps like the hiring freeze and contract reevaluations, "additional actions are necessary to maintain fiscal solvency." USCIS joins the U.S. Postal Service as a fee-funded agency asking for an emergency appropriation from Congress.  

Knowles, like other USCIS employees, said the workforce is not used to dealing with furloughs, adding to the anxiety. Workers have also come to him to ask about the possibility of layoffs through reductions in force. While employees continue to raise their concerns and demand answers, Knowles is redirecting them to instead take their cases to their members of Congress.

“We fervently ask our congressional representatives: please bail us out,” Knowles said. “We are not asking for permanent funding.” 

Scott expressed optimism USCIS employees would ultimately adjust to any disruptions in stride. 

“We know this is a difficult time, as we are all facing unique personal and professional challenges presented by COVID-19,” Scott said. “However, the USCIS workforce is comprised of resilient and innovative individuals who have proven they can withstand the unexpected, adapt to unforeseen circumstances, and come out stronger on the other side. I have no doubt this will again be the case for our agency.”