"Don't send us home," employee implores lawmakers at hearing.
Lawmakers on Wednesday pledged to help a federal agency avoid furloughing most of its workforce in the coming weeks, but the demands some are making for policy changes to accompany any financial assistance raise questions as to whether partisan gridlock will prevent Congress from intervening before employees are sent home without pay.
Joseph Edlow, the deputy director for policy at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, pleaded with lawmakers on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Citizenship and Immigration to provide the $1.2 billion his agency has requested from Congress to avoid furloughing about 70% of its workforce. Edlow found a mostly receptive audience with members of both parties suggesting the funding should be provided, though Democrats repeatedly said the money should be conditioned on reforms at USCIS.
While USCIS has said the funding shortfalls at the fee-funded agency have resulted entirely from the fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers and stakeholders countered its financial difficulties preceded the outbreak and corresponding reduction in immigration receipts. Trump administration policies to limit legal immigration have put USCIS in a financial hole, they said, which was only exacerbated by the current crisis.
“With all the administration has done to restrict legal immigration over the past three-and-a-half years, it’s no wonder that USCIS now stands before us hat in hand asking for money to maintain current operations,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee that held the hearing.
Immigration attorneys and advocates who also testified at the hearing said USCIS should go through a full audit before receiving funds, in addition to creating new reporting and accountability requirements, new revenue streams, prohibitions on transferring employees to enforcement agency duties and more discretion for employees to hasten the adjudication process.
Democrats appeared to approve of those proposals.
“It’s obvious we need to come up with a solution here, and that involves money, but it also involves policy,” Lofgren said.
In recent years, the backlog of outstanding immigration cases has ballooned to about 5.7 million. About 2.5 million of those are considered to be pending for more than the normal processing time. Lawmakers and stakeholders expressed concern the backlog would continue to grow at a rapid pace if most of the USCIS workforce is sent home. The Migration Policy Institute found this week USCIS would add an extra 75,000 cases per month that the furloughs are in effect.
Absent congressional intervention, the furloughs will go into effect Aug. 30. USCIS pushed back the implementation date from Aug. 3 after it collected more fees over the summer than it expected, leaving it with an expected surplus through the current fiscal year. Still, the agency plans to move forward with the furloughs, noting it expects to otherwise quickly run out of sufficient funds to make payroll in fiscal 2021.
Senate Republicans this week unveiled a roughly $1 trillion coronavirus relief package that included a $1.2 billion loan for USCIS with no conditions. The agency is seeking to raise its fees by 10% to offset that line of credit, which the Senate legislation would enable. Democrats have made clear they will not accept the larger Republican proposal in its current form, putting the timing of the next aid package and what USCIS language is included in flux. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said the series of bills Republicans and the White House put forward this week marked only a starting point in negotiations.
Edlow implored lawmakers to act swiftly so his agency could avoid the widespread furloughs.
“Nothing is more important to me than the men and women of USCIS who continue to perform our agency’s critical mission,” he said. “They have successfully adjusted to doing business in the unprecedented times of this pandemic, but they now face this financial uncertainty, which is beyond their control.” He added he was “committed to working with [Congress] to avert catastrophic furloughs.”
While Edlow noted Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought and acting Homeland Security Department Secretary Chad Wolf have both written to Congress asking for the funds, Lofgren said the administration has yet to send a formal request and for procedural reasons it would still be helpful for it to do so.
Republicans on the committee were more amenable to providing the funds without conditions. In an effort to demonstrate the country can afford to provide USCIS the $1.2 billion it has requested, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., said Congress is providing hundreds of billions of dollars for non-federal functions, such as K-12 schools and hospitals, in response to the pandemic.
“You’re asking for really a drop in the bucket that we should [appropriate] to make sure that we are doing our job as a federal government, and one of the core functions of the federal government, and to hear the politics that is being played right now is unfortunate,” he said. Buck added “much of the shortfall” USCIS is facing is due to the ongoing pandemic.
Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations at American Immigration Lawyers Association, asked lawmakers to consider the human side of the looming furloughs.
“These are real people with real financial and family responsibilities,” Dalal-Dheini said. “They are not pawns.” She added the furloughs would have “devastating impacts” on American families, students and businesses.
Michael Knowles, an asylum officer at USCIS and head of the union that represents agency employees in the Washington area, said he was concerned lawmakers were not recognizing the urgency of the situation.
“My main message today is keep us at work,” he said. “Don’t send us home.”