Cars line up during a drive-thru naturalization service in a parking structure at the USCIS headquarters on Detroit's east side. The ceremony is a way to continue working as the federal courthouse is shut down due to coronavirus.

Cars line up during a drive-thru naturalization service in a parking structure at the USCIS headquarters on Detroit's east side. The ceremony is a way to continue working as the federal courthouse is shut down due to coronavirus. Carlos Osorio / AP

Furlough Notices in Hand, Citizenship and Immigration Employees Look for New Jobs

Facing at least 30 days without pay, employees are frustrated. "Like it or not, I have to go," one says.

The Trump administration has begun sending furlough notices to more than 13,000 employees, and the warnings of more than 30 days of unpaid time off are causing some employees to seek new jobs altogether. 

Nearly three-quarters of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services workforce will receive their notices of administrative furlough this week, which, due to their duration, were issued under reduction-in-force procedures. Officials at USCIS, a fee-funded agency, told employees in May that a significant drop-off in application receipts 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 before the furloughs take effect at the beginning of August to help offset the losses, and for permission to increase fees 10% to reimburse the appropriation. 

A spokesperson for Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Trump administration has yet to make a formal request for the funds. The Homeland Security Department and Office of Management and Budget have sent letters to appropriators outlining USCIS’ needs, but congressional aides made clear those letters did not constitute an official request. 

The notices USCIS sent this week told employees they would be furloughed for at least a month, but less than 90 days. It provided instructions for handling their equipment, a form to apply for unemployment and a link to information about ethical restrictions during furlough periods. While the letters followed RIF procedures, the agency reminded employees this was not a permanent separation from federal service. 

“This extended furlough is being taken because of a shortage in funds,” the notices read. “As a fee-funded agency, USCIS has been directly impacted by the global coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. In stark contrast to congressionally appropriated agencies, USCIS’ budget is impacted by fluctuations in revenue based on application and petition receipt levels.”

Daniel Renaud, associate director for the agency's Field Operations Directorate, told employees in a Monday email the agency followed specific guidance when deciding which workers to furlough. 

“If you received a furlough notice, know this is not a reflection on your importance to the agency’s mission,” Renaud said. “This is a necessary path that we must take to address the agency’s financial difficulties, and it is one that weighs heavily on all of us.”

One USCIS employee who spoke to Government Executive on the condition of anonymity said he will proactively look for a new job. 

“I would take a job out of the government,” the employee said. “I'm pretty fed up with this furlough, and I really don’t like someone holding my job over my head.” The staffer added he likes his job, including the pay and benefits, but, “if something comes up, I will definitely leave.” 

The employee noted some colleagues have expressed interest in taking other federal jobs, such as with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

ICE is “not very well received by the public, but at least they’re paying,” the employee said. 

A USCIS manager said he had heard from subordinates they will look for new jobs without even waiting to see if Congress intervenes before the furloughs take place.

The employees “have told me they will begin looking for jobs in July and not wait for the rescission notice,” the manager said. If Congress provides funding before August, USCIS anticipates it would send a new notice to rescind the furloughs. 

Despite assurances to the contrary, the employees are concerned the furloughs will turn into a permanent RIF, the supervisor said. They have cited changes by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration—such as restrictions on visas due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, efforts to block immigrants who would qualify for public assistance and other initiatives—as well the “lack of urgency” to request appropriations from Congress for their concerns.  

Those factors have employees “thinking this is part of a plan to accomplish two goals of the Trump administration: to reduce immigration and to reduce the size of the administrative state,” the manager said.

A third USCIS employee, Michael Knowles, an asylum officer and head of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents USCIS employees in the Washington area, also said he has heard from employees who are weighing options to leave. One such worker told Knowles he liked his job, but, “like it or not, I have to go.” Another employee plans to move across the country to live with his parents and look for work there. That employee did not rule out reapplying for a USCIS job in the future. 

Furloughed workers can obtain outside employment, but generally must receive approval from the agency and avoid anything that could represent a conflict of interest. Highly skilled USCIS workers who often hold law degrees, such as asylum officers, refugee officers and immigration services staff, would therefore face restrictions in joining an immigration law firm or nonprofit, which Knowles said provides additional incentives for them to seek a new job altogether during a furlough period. 

“Some people will leave because they’re disgruntled,” Knowles said. “A lot of people will have to leave because they have no other choice.” He added: “It will force people to make decisions.” 

How Congress will respond remains unclear. While the Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to receive a formal request from the administration, the Shelby spokesperson said the panel is working with congressional leaders to make them aware of the crisis. Evan Hollender, a spokesman for Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who serves as Shelby’s counterpart in the House, affirmed the administration’s one-page letter does not constitute a formal request and said it “provides virtually no information on the shortfall or proposed remedies.” He said Democrats are prepared to “discuss solutions,” but Senate Republicans have so far not engaged in those talks. 

USCIS has pushed back the original start date for the furloughs, citing new belt-tightening policies it has implemented. Joseph Edlow, the agency’s deputy director for policy, said in a statement last week the agency has urged Congress to “provide the funding needed to pay our dedicated staff and ensure our operations continue uninterrupted during these unprecedented times.”

In the meantime, employee morale is sinking. The first USCIS employee quoted in this story said the workforce feels disheartened. 

“They mismanaged their money and the consequence is we’re punished,” the employee said. While the RIF procedures dictate the agency should make decisions on who is furloughed based on factors such as length of service, veterans' preference, performance and grade, the employee said there have been inconsistencies in the implementation. “There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to who was cut or who wasn’t,” the worker said, adding it has created “animosity” among the workforce. 

Knowles said he is still holding out hope Congress will “come to its senses” before the furloughs go into effect, suggesting agency leadership and lawmakers will decide, “We can’t afford to do this.” 

USCIS could “potentially lose institutional knowledge and skills,” he said. “A lot of time is spent acquiring the competence to do this work.”