Politics Standoff over funding leaves 13,400 immigration workers facing furlough

15:17  06 july  2020
15:17  06 july  2020 Source:   cbsnews.com

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In less than 30 days, the cash-strapped U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will start furloughing more than 13,400 employees — nearly 70% of its workforce — unless Congress authorizes emergency funding to avoid a scenario that would cripple the nation's legal immigration system.

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USCIS — which administers green card applications, work permits, asylum requests, naturalization ceremonies for would-be U.S. citizens and other immigration services — has been facing an unprecedented financial crisis, which it attributes to a drastic decrease in applications during the coronavirus pandemic that has deprived the fee-funded agency of its main source of revenue.

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Thousands of USCIS employees have already received notices of their looming furloughs, which would start on August 3. "If that happens, the agency would be left with a skeleton crew that will make it difficult to sustain our critical mission of administering our nation's lawful immigration system," Joseph Edlow, deputy director for policy at USCIS and the de facto head of the agency, said in a statement to CBS News.

USCIS, which is a division of the Department of Homeland Security, informed Congress of its financial woes in the middle of May, requesting $1.2 billion in emergency funding and promising to repay the funds by imposing a 10% surcharge on applications. However, in the ensuing weeks, a standoff has emerged between Congress and the Trump administration, leaving a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the USCIS workforce and the millions of immigrants who file petitions with the agency in any given year.

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Democratic and Republican congressional officials said the administration has yet to file a formal budget request, frustrating the lawmakers responsible for authorizing the funds. "It's a moving target right now in terms of what specifically it is that we need to address in order to prevent these furloughs," Democratic Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, the chair of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, told CBS News.

"Everyone is in agreement and focusing on the fact that we're going to prevent those furloughs. But unfortunately, with OMB not taking any action at this time, it is very difficult to sit down and finalize what exactly is needed," Roybal-Allard added, referring to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

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The Trump administration, however, says Congress has all it needs to bailout USCIS. "The Administration has formally requested the resources necessary to keep USCIS running," an OMB spokesperson told CBS News. "Our hope is that Congressional Democrats accept our proposal to keep the lights on in a responsible manner."

On June 19, Acting OMB Director Russell Vought sent letters to congressional appropriators expressing support for a "pay-it-forward deficit neutral approach" to grant USCIS emergency funds. The letters, however, did not specify an amount.

"The Trump White House is responsible for requesting supplemental funding, but all they have sent Congress is a one-page letter that provides virtually no information on the shortfall or proposed remedies," said Evan Hollander, a spokesperson for the House appropriations panel. "Despite this egregious lack of communication, House Democrats are closely tracking USCIS' financial difficulties and are prepared to discuss solutions as part of negotiations on the next phase of coronavirus response legislation. So far, Senate Republicans are unwilling to begin those talks."

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A Republican Senate aide said House appropriators have not reached out about the USCIS emergency funds. The aide also said the White House has not made a formal request for the funds, noting that Vought's June 19 letter did not include a dollar figure.

Roybal-Allard said she and other lawmakers are also asking USCIS to identify the factors — in addition to fewer applications during the pandemic — that precipitated the agency's budget shortfall. Congress has yet to receive a response, she said. "COVID is definitely a factor, but I don't believe that it is the whole reason that we are in this situation. And that's exactly what we're trying to find out, so that it can be corrected and we don't end up in the same place next year," she said.

"A recipe for disaster"

In May, USCIS attributed the agency's potential bankruptcy to a "dramatic" drop in applications during the pandemic, predicting that it would see a 61% decline in petition receipts through the end of September. An agency spokesperson said receipts "have slightly improved" since, but noted that the $1.2 billion request to Congress remained "unchanged."

There is consensus among lawmakers, congressional staff, immigration experts and USCIS employees that the pandemic has had a large impact on the agency's operations and fee-funded model. USCIS had to postpone in-person interviews, fingerprint and photo appointments, naturalization ceremonies and other services because of the coronavirus. Though some have reopened in a limited capacity, virtually all offices were closed to the public in the spring. The agency has recently conducted smaller naturalization ceremonies, but tens of thousands of immigrants seeking to finalize their path to U.S. citizenship are still waiting to complete their postponed appointments.

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However, there's disagreement over whether the coronavirus is the sole catalyst of USCIS' dire financial predicament. Lawmakers, experts, former USCIS officials and current employees believe the agency's fiscal crisis had been brewing well before the coronavirus became widespread in the U.S., fueled by the Trump administration's restrictive immigration policies and funding priorities.

USCIS publicly forecast a $1.26 billion deficit in November 2019, when it proposed fee hikes for a wide-range of its services.

A recent analysis by the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute shows that revenue from petition fees has declined in the past three consecutive fiscal years — a trend that ran parallel to dwindling petitions for programs the administration has limited or sought to dismantle entirely. In fiscal year 2019, USCIS brought in $13 million less in fee revenue than in 2018, which had already seen a $152 million drop in petition funds from the previous year.

Between fiscal years 2017 and 2019, USCIS has seen a significant drop in petitions for family-based green cards, naturalization, including from U.S. service members, and programs that protect certain immigrants from deportation, like Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, and the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA.

The Trump administration has sought to end the TPS and DACA programs, but its efforts have been stymied by the courts. It has also taken unilateral action to restrict family-based immigration, including by imposing a broad wealth test for green cards that is expected to disproportionately affect low-income applicants. Citing the economic impact of the pandemic, President Trump has recently issued two sets of restrictions to limit immigrant and work visas.

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"Over the last four years, the policies of this administration and the way that they ran things pushed the agency to the very edge of a cliff — and COVID was the finger on the back that sent it over," a USCIS employee who requested anonymity to speak freely told CBS News.

Another USCIS employee, who also requested anonymity and had received a furlough notice, agreed, noting the agency recently expanded its fraud detection and national security units. "To double the size of a directorate that doesn't actually perform the core function of our agency — which is to adjudicate requests for immigration benefits — is a recipe for financial disaster," the employee told CBS News.

USCIS pushed back on this criticism. "There is nothing in the budget or the analysis to suggest that there is any drop in our receipts that is outside historical norms based on any policy that has been implemented during this administration," a spokesman said. "In fact, the second quarter of fiscal year 2020 was better by $100M than fiscal year 2019 and far better ($200M) than it was in 2016, which should illustrate just how far receipts fell in late March forward due to COVID-19."

León Rodríguez, who led USCIS during President Barack Obama's second term, said the current situation could highlight the value of having some of the agency's offices, like those for processing asylum and refugee requests, transition from a fee-funded model, to one appropriated by Congress. "Because both asylum and refugee work are so bound up with U.S. foreign policy — and the humanitarian and national security strategic objectives of U.S. foreign policy — it makes sense for that to be a shared investment of all the American people," Rodríguez told CBS News.

Michael Knowles, an asylum officer and president of the union for USCIS employees in the Washington, D.C. area, said he doesn't think the American public has fully grasped the consequences of his agency's potential partial shutdown. "Millions of people will be affected, not just people who have yet to come to the U.S., but millions who are here. Millions of workers who depend on their work permits. Millions of lawful, tax paying residents who deserve to become citizens."

Knowles said he's still hopeful Congress and the administration may reach a compromise before August 3, noting that the two branches have frequently acted "at the last minute" during crises.

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