The U.S. agency that oversees key elements of the immigration system, including processing citizenship, green cards and asylum claims, has canceled scheduled leave this week for nearly 70 percent of its staff, according to an internal email sent to staff on Tuesday morning. .
The scheduled leave of more than 13,000 employees of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on August 30 was to end the immigration system, delaying the processing of green card applications and delaying citizenship ceremonies .
In a statement, Joseph Edlow, acting chief of USCIS, confirmed the decision, but said that “avoiding this disruption results in a high operational cost which will increase backlogs and wait times across the board, without any guarantee that we can avoid future holidays.
“A return to normal operating procedures requires congressional intervention to support the agency throughout fiscal 2021,” he added.
USCIS officials have warned since the spring that the agency, which is funded primarily by fees, was running out of money due to a drop in claims during the pandemic and needed an influx of 1.2 billion dollars from Congress.
Edlow said in his personal email that if the agency’s financial outlook had “temporarily improved” due to increased revenues, they would still need a long-term solution from Congress.
He added that the agency would implement “serious cost reduction efforts” that will have an impact on operations.
Without “congressional action,” these cost-cutting measures will lead to problems, such as increased processing times and possible longer wait times for those seeking to become US citizens, he wrote. .
“I want to be clear though: our problems are not yet resolved. We still need Congress to act on the assurances it continues to provide, ”he added. “Without Congressional action during this budget cycle, a future holiday scenario is still possible.”
While the reasons for the funding shortage have been debated – agency officials cite a massive decline in immigration applications due to the pandemic, while immigrant advocates and experts say the policies of the Trump administration played a role in the budget problems – the impact on the immigration system was not.
The agency’s place in the immigration system is critical: USCIS officers provide work permits, perform initial asylum checks that determine whether immigrants can make a case for protection in the United States and issue green cards and naturalizations, among other tasks.
However, USCIS underwent a radical transformation under the Trump administration, as its officers were forced to implement policies that restricted asylum at the southern border and made it more difficult to apply for some visas.
In July, USCIS officials announced a finalized policy that will increase fees for those applying for citizenship and other benefits, while also charging for asylum claims in order to raise more funds. The administration also pushed through a policy that allows the government to deny permanent residence or restrict certain visas to immigrants who officials say are likely to use public benefits.
As the holiday approached, some USCIS employees were panicking as they considered surviving without a paycheck. Some have been spared, others not. Of the 2,200 staff in the division that manages refugee and asylum work, 1,500 have been granted leave. The scheduled holidays hurt agency morale and many questioned whether this was related to an overall intention to curtail immigration.
Even with the news of the leave canceled, some agency workers feared it was just a form of temporary relief.
“Every colleague I have had contact with in the last hour or so has expressed a mixture of anger, mistrust and exhaustion. There is little relief here. The feeling is that the guillotine may be delayed, ”said a USCIS employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.
Others hoped it would lead to policy changes to encourage more nominations.
“I am grateful that the agency continues to apply to employ the dedicated cadre of people who work here and that we can continue to provide services to our clients, but I hope this stressful exercise leads to reforms such as turnover unnecessary checks that cost money and have not raised additional fraud or security concerns, ”another agency employee said.
While Edlow attributed the decision to avoid the holidays to an increase in income since the fall in funds in the spring and cuts in internal spending, the agency had faced increased pressure from Republicans and Democrats to Capitol Hill to avoid mass holidays.
In a bipartisan letter sent to USCIS last week, members of Congress, including Republican Senator John Cornyn, noted that the agency is expected to carry over more than $ 200 million into the next fiscal year, which begins in October. They urged USCIS not to lay off the bulk of its employees.
Then, during the weekend, the house passed a bill which aimed to fill the USCIS funding gap. The bill would increase fees for those seeking “superior processing” of immigration applications in order to increase the agency’s revenue.
“My colleagues and I are relieved that we don’t have time off, and we can continue our good work on immigration. However, the fact that the announcement always requires more cost reduction is still of concern, especially since in the future a leave scenario is always possible, ”said a USCIS employee. “It still seems like a game of politics, which is frustrating.”