Immigration service officers lead an oath during a drive-in citizenship ceremony in El Cajon, Calif., on June 26.

Immigration service officers lead an oath during a drive-in citizenship ceremony in El Cajon, Calif., on June 26. Gregory Bull/AP

Homeland Security Agency Delays Widespread Furloughs

Agency still leaves unpaid time off on the table for later this year.

The Trump administration on Friday promised to delay unpaid furloughs for more than 13,000 employees at a Homeland Security Department agency, with the announcement following an email telling employees the agency's financial situation had improved. 

The furloughs, which were set to affect more than 70% of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services workforce, were scheduled to begin Aug. 3 and will now be pushed back several weeks at least. Employees, lawmakers and stakeholders had warned that the forced, unpaid time off would drastically curb the agency’s capacity to carry out its mission. 

The announcement follows a recent email from USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow to employees noting the agency would likely be able to cover its expenses in fiscal 2020 due to an uptick in revenue. USCIS had warned for months a downturn in fees collected due to the novel coronavirus would leave the agency unable to meet its payroll, necessitating the furloughs. The agency said it could avoid sending its employees home without pay only if Congress provided it $1.2 billion, but lawmakers have yet to approve such funding and USCIS sent out furlough notices in late June. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced on Friday that Edlow had promised him to delay the furloughs at least through August. Earlier this week, Leahy and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., sent a letter to Edlow calling on him to reverse the furlough threat after learning USCIS would end fiscal 2020 with a budget surplus. Agency officials previously told lawmakers they anticipated USCIS would fall $571 million short of covering its costs in the current fiscal year. 

Edlow recently told employees, however, USCIS would only delay furloughs if Congress provides funding or “otherwise indicates” that it plans to do so. Such a signal would put the agency in a “better financial posture,” he said, and could enable it to cancel the furloughs altogether once the funding is received. Leahy and Tester said in their letter they were “committed to addressing this issue in the next coronavirus supplemental.” After delays this week, Senate Republicans have promised to release the elements of their next relief package on Monday. It is still unclear whether that will include USCIS funding. 

Leahy reiterated on Friday his commitment to addressing a potential shortfall for fiscal 2021 in the forthcoming coronavirus package and called on USCIS to cancel its furlough plan altogether. 

“Furloughing thousands of public servants in the middle of a pandemic and at record unemployment would have upended the lives of the dedicated women and men working at USCIS and impacted thousands who rely on their services, and after new revenue estimates showed the agency ending the fiscal year with a surplus it was completely unjustifiable,” Leahy said. “I’m glad the agency decided to change course for now, but I remain troubled the Trump administration was pushing for these furloughs in the first place.”

In an email to employees on Friday, Edlow made clear the workforce was not yet out of the woods. He said recent commitments from lawmakers working to provide emergency funding enabled the postponement. 

"I want to be transparent: despite this recent uptick in receipts, we still require funding from Congress to maintain operations into FY 2021," the deputy director said. "We hope that this delay will allow enough time for Congress to provide the funding that USCIS needs to cancel the administrative furlough altogether. The Office of the Chief Financial Officer will continue to track our agency’s revenue to ensure we have the information necessary to make difficult decisions impacting our workforce and operations." He added employees will receive more guidance on what to expect in the furlough process in the coming days. 

Jessica Collins, a USCIS spokesperson, confirmed the furlough delay was to allow Congress more time to act and said the request for $1.2 billion remains unchanged. 

Leahy, USCIS employees and immigration advocates have suggested the pandemic is not the lone cause for the agency’s financial woes. 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.

On Thursday, the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents USCIS employees, announced it was launching an advertising campaign to highlight the impact of the furloughs. The ads are airing on networks such as CNN, MSNBC and ESPN. They are also on digital platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. 

“We are taking our advocacy to the next level because we are terrified by the prospect of our military, American businesses, the economy, and legal applicants being further hurt if Congress fails to act,” said Danielle Spooner, president of the AFGE council that represents USCIS workers. 

Employees have also spoken out on the personal impact of going at least one month without pay, as the furlough notices promised, with many suggesting they would look for new jobs. Also on Thursday, USCIS employees joined a class action lawsuit against the Trump administration seeking 25% hazard pay for performing their duties during the pandemic.