Budget shortfalls at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services have caused the agency to issue furlough notices to approximately 75 percent of its staff, a move that could lead to a vicious cycle of increasing financial challenges.
The agency is funded almost entirely by visa and citizenship applications, which have dropped significantly from the pandemic and Trump administration policies that have restricted the number of immigrants arriving to the U.S.
That drop in fee revenue means that a majority of the USCIS workforce will be required to stop work and go without pay for at least 30 days, beginning Aug. 3, unless Congress intervenes.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said American Federation of Government Employees Local 2660 President Nicole Guess on a July 14 press call about the upcoming furloughs.
The furloughs would last for at least 30 days, but could last as long as 90 days before USCIS would have to make a decision to either bring the employees back or start taking more long-term measures, which could include laying those employees off entirely.
Despite these staffing reductions, employees that remain at work will still be expected to process applications and interview applicants, which could result in increasing backlogs and even more loss in agency revenue.
“We are unsure how we are going to continue our operations if the furlough goes through, because the law tells us that we must interview certain applications,” said Guess.
“We don’t receive the funds until after the application is completed. Some interviews require face-to-face interactions as determined by the law. We were unable to interview in the months of March, April or May, and some of us still aren’t interviewing.”
Members on the call said that fewer people in the office will likely result in backlog increases, which at the very least will greatly increase the workload for employees if and when they are allowed to return to work.
AFGE Local 3928 President Ruark Hotopp noted that if the furloughs go through, the background checks and investigations that his office conducts “will not continue to happen, and that directly effects all Americans and their national security.”
Fewer staff will also mean a slower processing of citizenship applications, meaning that people who would potentially have been made citizens prior to the November 2020 election will instead be stuck in processing.
Federal employees are no stranger to furloughs, with three federal government shutdowns occurring in the last 10 years, the most recent of which remains the longest U.S. government shutdown in history. But this kind of furlough could be far more damaging.
“Unlike during a government shutdown, if these employees are furloughed, they will not receive back pay, meaning that these civilians and their families will face severe economic consequences in the midst of a global pandemic,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley.
Union leaders are hoping to head off the furloughs before they can happen by getting Congress to pass $1.2 billion in emergency funding for the agency, which would ensure that employees would be able to continue working through the end of this year and into 2021.
“We are confident that we can get this done, we are confident that there is support to do this and stave off the furloughs and we are confident that many in Congress understand the potential effects if it’s not done,” said Julie Tippens, deputy director of the AFGE legislative department.
“We are looking at the possibility of the emergency appropriations bill as a good possibility, as opposed to a standalone bill, although it may be the language of a standalone bill that gets worked into it, as that often happens with these bills.”
Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.