The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. immigration agency says it won’t need to furlough employees, but processing could slow ahead of election

A citizen candidate sits socially distanced and wearing a protective mask during a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony in New York City on July 22, 2020.
A citizen candidate sits socially distanced and wearing a protective mask during a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony in New York City on July 22, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The agency that runs the U.S. legal immigration system said Tuesday it will no longer need to furlough 70 percent of its workforce, after warning for months that 13,000 of its employees would be sent home if lawmakers didn’t provide a $1.2 billion emergency bailout.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is funded via the fees it collects from immigrants seeking green cards, citizenship and other benefits, but a drop in revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic had left the agency facing a budget shortfall. Several of the agency’s service centers have temporarily closed to the public or scaled down their operations during the outbreak.

Senior officials at the agency asked Congress for an emergency loan they said they would need to prevent mass furloughs and an even sharper slowdown in the agency’s processing capacity.

The U.S. immigration agency needed a $1.2 billion bailout, and negotiations put Democrats in a bind

Joseph Edlow, deputy director for policy at USCIS, said in a statement that such steps would no longer be necessary and that the agency has enough money to get through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, using “aggressive spending reduction measures.”

“However, averting this furlough comes at a severe operational cost that will increase backlogs and wait times across the board, with no guarantee we can avoid future furloughs,” said Edlow, who runs USCIS on a day-to-day basis as President Trump has not appointed or nominated a director.

A slowdown or reduction in the pace of citizenship naturalization ceremonies will leave fewer eligible voters ahead of the November election, potentially hurting Democrats, who surveys indicate hold a general advantage among naturalized voters.

Edlow said in his statement that “naturalization ceremonies will continue” and that the agency would tighten belts elsewhere by paring down contracts and “other support activities.”

“Anticipated operational impacts include increased wait times for pending case inquiries with the USCIS Contact Center, longer case processing times, and increased adjudication time for aliens adjusting status or naturalizing,” he said.

On Sunday, the House of Representatives approved a bill providing emergency funding for USCIS to keep the agency running, passing the measure with unanimous consent. The bill’s fate remained uncertain, however, with U.S. senators in recess, leaving the threat of a furlough looming for the agency’s employees and immigrants with pending applications.

USCIS officials have acknowledged that their initial projected shortfalls were incorrect and that the agency has hundreds of millions of dollars more in its accounts than it expected it would have.

Doug Rand, a former technology adviser to President Barack Obama who founded an immigration and visa services firm, called the USCIS announcement of averted furloughs “grade A spin.”

“USCIS leadership *caused* the looming furlough & threw its workforce into tumult for 4 months before backing off at the last second,” Rand said in a tweet. “No apologies for bringing >13k civil servants to the brink of an unpaid furlough in the middle of an economic crisis.”

He and other critics have blamed the financial problems the agency faces on mismanagement, including Trump-era policy changes and verification measures that have created more paperwork for USCIS staffers and applicants.