Thousands in California to Face Delays If Feds Furlough Immigration Workers

Students prepare for their U.S. citizenship test at a class at the Fair Oaks Community Center in Redwood City, Calif. on March 22, 2018. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Updated 2:00 p.m:

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) should postpone plans to furlough about 13,400 employees, now that the agency has projected it will end this fiscal year with a budget surplus instead of the $571 million deficit it forecast earlier this year, said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, both Democrats who sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“We ask that you take immediate action to save USCIS employees from unnecessary furloughs,” wrote Leahy and Tester in a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow. “You must not sit by as thousands of American jobs are on the line, particularly during a time of unprecedented unemployment.”

In the letter, Leahy and Tester said that even though USCIS’ fiscal outlook had reversed, the agency had “perplexingly chosen” to proceed with the furloughs, which would go into effect on Aug. 3 for at least a month.

Jessica Collins, a spokeswoman with USCIS, said the agency still requires $1.2 billion from Congress because its financial outlook had not improved enough to sustain operations next fiscal year.

“In order to delay a furlough, we would need a commitment from Congress to fund USCIS, either through passing legislation or indicating that legislation is forthcoming which would meet our ultimate goal of canceling the furlough once we receive funding,” Collins said in a statement.

DHS, the parent agency of USCIS, and the White House Office of Management and Budget did not immediately return requests for comment.

Original Story:

Less than two weeks before massive furloughs are set to strike the federal agency that processes immigration applications, it’s unclear whether Congress will reach a bailout deal in time to spare more than 13,000 employees and millions of immigrants awaiting key services.

The stakes are high in California, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants — as well as their American employers and relatives — depend on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for work permits, green cards, naturalization and other benefits.

USCIS plans to furlough more than two-thirds of its employees, including 2,300 in California, because revenue has dropped dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the agency.

In May, USCIS officials told Congress they would need $1.2 billion to avoid the furloughs, which are set to start Aug. 3.

California representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) and Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) said they are working to include emergency funds for the agency in the contentious COVID-19 recovery bill that Congress is debating.

But Roybal-Allard and Lofgren, who chair subcommittees negotiating relief for the agency, said the White House has only provided a one-page letter with scant details on the financial shortfall at USCIS or proposed solutions. They said a lack of cooperation from the administration has slowed progress.

“If the administration decides to run this agency off a cliff, which it looks like they're planning to do, I think it would be really a shameful thing,” Lofgren said, chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration.

A spokesman with the White House Office of Management and Budget defended the administration’s response, and said Congress has enough information to avoid the furloughs, which are expected to last between one and three months.

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"The Administration has formally requested the resources necessary to keep USCIS running,” said the OMB spokesman in a statement. “Our hope is that Congressional Democrats accept our proposal to keep the lights on in a responsible manner."

USCIS has proposed to pay back to the U.S. Treasury the $1.2 billion it seeks by adding a 10% surcharge to applications paid by U.S. employers, U.S. citizens and immigrants. A bill introduced by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo) this month would do that. But Lofgren and other Democrats have been lukewarm to the idea of raising fees.

Unlike most federal agencies, USCIS funds its operations with immigrant application fees. After the agency halted in-person services due to the pandemic and the worldwide travel shutdown, its earnings collapsed by half, starting in March, according to officials. Offices began to reopen last month, but revenues are still lagging.

“This dramatic drop in revenue has made it impossible for our agency to operate at full capacity,” said a USCIS spokesperson. “Without additional funding from Congress before August 3, USCIS has no choice but to administratively furlough a substantial portion of our workforce.”

But critics say that the agency was already on shaky financial ground well before the coronavirus tore through the country. And they blame the Trump administration’s management of the agency.

USCIS had at least $790 million in cash reserves in 2017, then went into a budget deficit the following year, according to agency figures analyzed by researchers at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Ur Jaddou, former chief counsel at USCIS, said President Trump’s restrictive immigration policies have cost the agency significant losses in revenue by excluding many immigrants from work permits and other benefits.

For example, Jaddou estimates that since the Trump administration took steps to end the humanitarian protections called Temporary Protected Status for more than 400,000 immigrants, USCIS has lost nearly $200 million in TPS renewal fees every 18 months.

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If the furloughs go into effect and fewer employees are at work to process petitions, more immigrants could be locked out of benefits for which they’re eligible — including becoming naturalized U.S. citizens, just months before the presidential election, Jaddou said.

“This is an insidious, bureaucratic way of achieving many of the policies that this administration has implemented since the beginning,” Jaddou said, who now directs DHS Watch at the pro-immigration group America’s Voice.

In the first three months of this year, USCIS received more than 40,000 naturalization petitions at its offices in California, about 17% of the total requests for U.S. citizenship nationwide.

In 2018, USCIS naturalized more than 750,000 people, and processed more than 630,000 green card petitions, which allow immigrants to live and work permanently in the U.S., according to an agency report.

In a letter to Congress last month, DHS Watch and 100 other immigrant and human rights organizations wrote that USCIS has “squandered millions of dollars” as the Trump administration transformed the historically customer-service focused agency into an immigration enforcement arm.

The advocates want any Congressional bailout to be conditioned on changes at the agency, including prohibiting immigration enforcement arrests at USCIS offices and suspending proposed fee increases that would double the price of naturalization.

Oakland-based immigration attorney Jesse Lloyd said many of his clients are already experiencing delays in getting their work permits, due to the agency’s financial problems.

Furloughs that further delay work permits would mean that many Bay Area immigrants could lose their ability to work legally, and that could cost them their jobs, he said.

“These are households with U.S. citizen spouses. These are often households with U.S. citizen children,” Lloyd said. “And all of these citizens are relying on the spouse to be able to be employed.”