Stalled stimulus talks could mean thousands of furloughs and halt US immigration system

The federal agency responsible for granting citizenship, providing immigration benefits and processing visa applications could furlough two-thirds of its workforce at the end of the month after negotiations over the next stimulus package stalled.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, told Congress in May that it expected to furlough the majority of its workforce amid a budget shortfall. The agency asked for $1.2 billion.

But the expected vehicle for the funds would be the next coronavirus relief bill, which is now at a standstill. Over the weekend, President Donald Trump announced he would take executive actions to deliver aid to Americans affected by the pandemic after Democrats and the White House were unable to reach an agreement on a stimulus bill.

With no imminent legislation in sight and a stalemate in Congress over the stimulus, the likelihood additional funds will go to USCIS has all but diminished. Furloughs, if they happen, could bring the immigration system to a halt.

“There’s currently no plan B,” a congressional aide told CNN, adding that the next likely opportunity to shore up funding is in September through appropriations legislation unless a Covid package comes together. “The question is whether (USCIS will) delay furloughs and give us that opportunity,” the aide said.

USCIS, a fee-funded agency, has been at the center of Trump’s immigration agenda. Over the last three years, the agency has rolled out a slew of changes that have made applying for immigration benefits more challenging.

Some outside experts point to the administration’s restrictionist policies as a contributing factor to the budget shortfall.

Between the end of fiscal years 2017 and 2019, for example, USCIS received nearly 900,000 fewer petitions, according to Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. She added that the decrease was largely driven by the administration’s own decisions, such as ending Temporary Protected Status for nationals of several countries and drastically decreasing the number of refugees admitted to the United States.

USCIS previously planned to begin furloughs August 3 but pushed the date to August 30 following assurances from Congress and an uptick in application and petition receipts, the agency said.

“In the past few months, USCIS has taken action to avert a fiscal crisis, including limiting spending to salary and mission-critical activities,” the agency said in a statement. “Without congressional intervention, USCIS will have to take drastic actions to keep the agency solvent.”

Asked about the stalled stimulus talks, USCIS declined to comment on any pending legislation. CNN also reached out to the Office of Management and Budget for comment.

Of its nearly 20,000 employees, 13,400 employees are at risk of being furloughed. That’s raised alarm among lawmakers, employees, and former officials who warn that a disruption in the workforce could wreak havoc on the immigration system.

“A furlough would be devastating not only to the civil servants and their families who would be without a paycheck — but devastating also to millions of legal immigrants and lawful permanent residents, as well as to millions of American citizens,” Michael Knowles, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local union that represents Washington, DC, area employees, told lawmakers in July.

Ur Jaddou, who previously served as USCIS chief counsel, echoed those concerns, underscoring that a diminished workforce would result in even longer processing times and bring the system that hundreds of thousands of immigrants rely on to a standstill.

Jaddou also noted that there could be a surge in filings, which comes with money, before a new fee regulation goes into effect. “Is it enough to forestall a furlough as planned? I don’t know,” she said.

Lawmakers have similarly raised concern about furloughs. Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, welcomed news of USCIS delaying furloughs late last month, but said he “remain troubled the Trump Administration was pushing for these furloughs in the first place.”

The question looming over the next few weeks is whether those furloughs will happen as planned this time around or be pushed again.