President-elect Joe Biden speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday.

President-elect Joe Biden speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday. Susan Walsh/AP

At Least One Federal Agency Plans to Begin the Biden Administration Under a Hiring Freeze

Resource shortages could hinder Biden's ability to carry out key pieces of his policy agenda.

One agency at the Homeland Security Department is operating under the assumption it will spend at least the opening months of the Biden administration under a hiring freeze, citing ongoing budget shortfalls. 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has operated under a freeze for most of its workforce since February 2020 and the agency recently told employees that would continue as an organization-wide moratorium through March 2021, according to multiple agency workers. Biden will take office Jan. 20, at which point his administration could reverse what Trump officials are currently telling the USCIS workforce. When President Trump took office in 2017, he quickly instituted a government-wide hiring freeze that lasted for several months. 

The current administration has said the freeze is necessary, due to lost revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts by President Trump to restrict legal immigration. The fee-funded agency threatened furloughs for 13,000 employees last year, but delayed and ultimately canceled them altogether after its receipts picked up and it instituted cost-cutting measures. Congress never provided the $1.2 billion the Trump administration had said was necessary to avoid the furloughs, but did allow for higher fees for premium services. 

Still, the agency moved forward with furloughing some contract workers and kept its hiring freeze in place. Joseph Edlow, currently serving as head of USCIS, said at an event with the agency's ombudsman in October that while receipts had "steadily increased" the overall financial situation had not improved significantly. That required the agency to curtail spending, including through the freeze; dramatically reduce contractor operations; and slash overtime. 

LaDonna Davis, a USCIS spokeswoman, declined to comment on the specifics of the hiring freeze. The recent memorandum announcing the extension of the freeze said it was necessary to “provide the agency with greater flexibility to manage our budget.”  

“In the past few months, USCIS has taken action to avert a fiscal crisis, including limiting spending to salary and mission-critical activities,” Davis said. 

Some USCIS workers had already begun looking for new jobs, employees told Government Executive last year, 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. Employees said on Monday the ongoing freeze will further drive down morale and cause employees no longer able to get promoted to again search for new employment. 

Edlow said the decision to avoid furloughs came at a cost and would lead to growing backlogs and wait times for immigrants. Unresolved cases are already at all-time highs, having particularly ballooned during the pandemic. More than one-in-five USCIS positions sat vacant prior to the pandemic’s outset. Edlow suggested last year that furloughs would still be necessary absent congressional intervention. 

Biden has promised a slew of reforms to immigration policy that will affect USCIS, such as unwinding Trump’s significant restrictions on asylum, creating a pathway to citizenship for “dreamers” and other undocumented immigrants, streamlining the naturalization process and dramatically increasing refugee intake. An already backlogged and understaffed USCIS could face headwinds in enacting these reforms—especially with a hiring freeze in place—a reality President-elect Biden appeared to acknowledge last month. The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment. 

“I will accomplish what I said I would do, a much more humane policy based on family unification,” Biden said. “But it requires getting a lot in place and requires getting the funding to get it in place, including just asylum judges, for example. So it’s a matter of it will get done and it will get done quickly. But it’s not going to be able to be done on day one.” 

Michael Knowles, an asylum officer and head of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents USCIS employees in the Washington area, said the Biden administration could struggle to end the freeze without further appropriations. He, too, suggested the president-elect’s immigration agenda could be disrupted by the resource crunch. 

“We’re glad to know our country will once again be a haven for refugees,” Knowles said as one example. “But has anyone thought about what it will take to interview, approve, move and resettle 125,000 refugees?” 

The problems affecting the agency are not going to disappear with a new administration, he added. 

“Somebody needs to think about how we are going to properly resource USCIS,” Knowles said. “How are we going to carry out our mission if we are going to be in a hiring freeze?”