With furloughs looming, union pleads for deal on USCIS funding

The immigration agency is seeking $1.2 billion to keep employees working through an anticipated financial shortfall it links to the pandemic.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office located in Silicon Valley BY Sundry Photography Shutterstock ID: 1590456970
 

The Silicon Valley office of USCIS. (Photo credit: Sundry Photography/Shutterstock.com)

The union that represents many of the 13,000 immigration employees facing furlough Aug. 30 backed the agency's push for emergency supplemental funding.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service says it's in financial freefall because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, the agency said it would delay plans to issue furloughs to employees but that without a $1.2 billion supplemental appropriation, the agency will begin sending employees home at the end of August.

"I'm a little concerned that some of the dialogue today seems to not recognize the urgency of this situation," Michael Knowles, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1924, testified at the House Judiciary Committee hearing. "The plight of 13,000 federal employees is not merely their own plight. The entire immigration system of the United States is hanging in the balance."

Knowles added, "Our union does not wish it to be seen that we're coming here asking for a blank check for our boss. We're asking that you keep us at work."

Joseph Edlow, deputy director of policy for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship of the House Judiciary Committee that the COVID-19 pandemic was largely to blame.

"Prior to COVID we were operating at a deficit. Frankly we've been operating at a deficit for the last several years, but we were no way in a budget shortfall that was going to cut into our mission and potentially bring about furloughs," Edlow told lawmakers.

The agency is seeking, with the support of the White House, a $570 million supplemental for the current fiscal year and $650 million to begin fiscal 2021, Edlow said.

USCIS is largely funded by fees. While fees have gone up over the last two administrations, under the Trump administration, costs have risen in part because of an influx of new employees brought on to investigate potential fraud in applications for citizenship and residency.

Immigration politics and accusations of mismanagement and bad faith are complicating the issue, with Democrats on the panel fuming that USCIS hasn't updated its policy on processing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals applications one month after a Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the Trump administration's end to the program.

Additionally, Doug Rand, a former official at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under the Obama administration and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, testified that USCIS created its own financial problems before the pandemic by adding workforce and slowing processing.

"This buildup of red tape and government employees has led to the worst of both worlds: burgeoning payroll expenses are crippling the financial sustainability of the agency, even as backlogs and processing times have reached crisis levels," Rand said.

"Our agency certainly is broken – it needs to be fixed," Knowles said, but added that an immigration policy deal was unlikely to be struck in time to prevent furloughs.

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