Agency expects major operational impacts and says furloughs still possible in the future.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has canceled furloughs for more than 13,000 employees scheduled to begin at the end of the month, following months of threats to send about 70% of its workforce home without pay.
The Homeland Security Department component said its financial situation, coupled with cost cutting measures, had improved sufficiently to avoid the forced time off. USCIS, a fee-funded agency, had previously said the furloughs were necessary due to a significant decline in receipts during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The agency had spent months telling Congress the furloughs would go forward unless lawmakers provided it with $1.2 billion, which they have so far declined to do.
USCIS previously delayed the furloughs, which were set to last for at least 30 days, after lawmakers said they were working on a legislative solution to the budget shortfall and the agency said its fee-collected revenues had increased. In an email to employees Tuesday, USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow said the agency had taken a slew of cost-reduction actions to improve its financial situation. While it initially projected a shortfall of $571 million in fiscal 2020, the agency now expects to end the fiscal year with a surplus of more than $230 million, according to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Edlow said the savings efforts will have a significant impact on operations, including by slashing contracts and contractors, increasing wait times at the USCIS contact center and causing slower processing of naturalization applications. USCIS previously implemented a hiring freeze for all Office of Field Operations positions.
“Although our situation has temporarily improved due to a modest increase in revenues, Congress must act on a long-term fix that will provide the necessary financial assistance to sustain the agency through fiscal year 2021 and beyond,” Edlow told employees.
Employees and immigration advocates have warned of the dire consequences if the furloughs had gone through, such as rapidly adding to the already ballooning backlog of pending immigration cases before the agency. Some USCIS workers had already begun looking for new jobs, employees have told Government Executive, and morale has tanked as employees feared the Trump administration was purposely sabotaging the agency. While DHS officials have consistently blamed the pandemic as the exclusive cause for USCIS' budget shortfall, many stakeholders have noted the agency's revenue has declined for years due to the administration’s efforts to limit legal immigration.
In a statement Tuesday, Edlow praised the workforce, though he cautioned furloughs may still be possible in the future.
“Our workforce is the backbone of every USCIS accomplishment,” Edlow said. “Their resilience and strength of character always serves the nation well, but in this year of uncertainty, they remain steadfast in their mission administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and protecting the American people, even as a furlough loomed before them.”
Edlow said USCIS would see backlogs and wait times increase “across the board,” explaining the agency was now implementing steps Congress had previously asked it to avoid when legislative intervention still appeared likely. Senate Republicans last month unveiled a roughly $1 trillion coronavirus relief package that included a $1.2 billion loan for USCIS with no conditions, but negotiations over such a bill have collapsed. The agency raised its fees in late July to help offset its shortfalls.
Tuesday’s announcement came as a surprise to USCIS employees. One staffer who spoke to Government Executive just an hour before Edlow’s email went out said everyone was still expecting the furloughs to occur Aug. 30 as scheduled, noting he had secured alternative employment for the month of September. USCIS originally sent out furlough notices in June, before revoking those and sending out new ones to accommodate the delayed start date. Customs and Border Protection, another DHS component, has also walked back furlough threats.
At a town hall on Tuesday afternoon, employees asked leaders how it planned to restore morale at the agency. Daniel Renaud, the head of Field Operations, highlighted the agency's open communication throughout the last several months. That did little to assuage employees' concerns, according to one staffer present for the meeting.
"While no one doubts that the hiring freeze, pay freeze, elimination of overtime and curtailment of contracts were the result of a lot of hard work at HQ," the employee said, "there is still an incredible amount of distrust and a lack of good will towards management."
This story has been updated with additional comment.