Lawmakers say the furloughs, set to begin in August, are now unnecessary.
The Trump administration is moving forward with more than 13,000 furloughs even though the impacted agency no longer expects to see a budget shortfall this fiscal year, according to lawmakers and internal emails sent to employees.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told employees it can only delay the mandatory unpaid time off for more than 70% of its workforce if it receives emergency funding from Congress, even though an uptick in revenue has opened the possibility that it can now cover its expected expenses through September.
Joseph Edlow, USCIS deputy director for policy, said in an email obtained by Government Executive the agency would not be able to continue operations starting Oct. 1—the beginning of fiscal 2021—without help from Congress. USCIS officials previously asked Congress for an emergency appropriation of $1.2 billion, saying the fees the agency collects had dropped precipitously as a result of the novel coronavirus and that this would leave it $571 million short of covering its costs in the current fiscal year.
In a letter on Tuesday to Edlow and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, the top Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its Homeland Security panel said USCIS was now projecting a surplus in fiscal 2020 and should take immediate action to prevent “unnecessary furloughs.”
“A surplus is certainly in stark contrast to the revenue forecast provided to Congress earlier this year,” wrote Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Jon Tester, D-Mont. “Yet, despite this welcome reversal in revenue estimates, USCIS has perplexingly chosen to proceed with furloughs of over 13,000 federal employees. During this pandemic with record unemployment, needlessly forcing these hardworking Americans into unemployment will crush the morale of the workforce and put an untold number of families into unnecessary financial distress.”
Edlow 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. The furloughs are currently set to begin the first week of August. Leahy and Tester said in their letter they were “committed to addressing this issue in the next coronavirus supplemental.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have met with Republicans in the Senate this week to iron out a forthcoming pandemic relief bill. They expect to pass such a bill by the end of the month, but have not indicated whether it will include USCIS funding. The House passed a coronavirus package last month that did not include USCIS funding and many Democrats have pushed to only provide such appropriations with certain conditions on immigration policy.
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.
In their letter, Leahy and Tester noted the larger impact of USCIS drastically curtailing services due to widespread furloughs, noting citizens, employers and students alike rely on USCIS. Agency employees have said fraud detection and background checks would be greatly impacted, in-person interviews with immigrants would be curtailed and already record-high backlogs would continue to grow. Many workers have said they are looking for permanent work elsewhere, explaining they cannot afford to go months at a time without a paycheck. The furlough notices, which USCIS sent out earlier this month, said the unpaid time off would last for at least 30 days.
“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.”
Edlow said USCIS was focused on the "affordability for the next fiscal year," noting the agency must pay rent, security costs and essential contracts. The agency must replenish its carryover reserves, he explained, and ensure adequate funding for the coming months. While USCIS has long delayed making a formal request for funding from Congress, Edlow promised to fight for the workforce in his ongoing conversations with Congress.
A USCIS spokesperson reiterated the message in Edlow’s email, saying its budget situation has improved but it cannot defer furloughs without congressional intervention.
“Our funding request of $1.2 billion has not changed and we cannot emphasize enough that we need Congress to provide emergency funding to ensure agency operations continue uninterrupted,” the spokesperson said.