Without an influx of $1.2 billion in emergency appropriations from Congress, as many as 13,400 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) employees could be furloughed August 31, bringing the U.S. immigration system to a halt and leaving thousands of families without income.
The number of employees represents 70 percent of the federal workers who process legal immigrants into the U.S. The furloughs originally were scheduled for August 3, but the agency received some additional funding over the summer. Officials learned in July that USCIS had a surplus of approximately $121 million. The extra funds are needed for the 2021 fiscal year, which starts October 1.
“Not only would the furlough devastate USCIS and possibly irreparably harm foreign nationals and the businesses that rely on its services, but it would also harm local economies and create even more unemployment during the COVID-19 national crisis,” according to the National Law Review.
Adding to the anxiety and uncertainty is the fact that Congress is not in session.
“This isn’t only about the 13,400 American families about to be laid off during a pandemic –this is yet another thinly veiled attack on the legal immigration system by Trump administration officials like Stephen Miller,” Danielle Spooner, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 119, which includes USCIS workers, said in a prepared statement.
“Over the long-term, that's going to seriously damage our legal immigration system through a loss of institutional knowledge that isn't replaceable,” Spooner added, explaining that agency workers had been classified as essential when the novel coronavirus pandemic began.
The furlough notice to employees indicated furloughs would last for at least 30 days, but were not expected to exceed 90 days, according to Spooner. After 30 days, the USCIS may eliminate some positions entirely.
Stalled immigration processing could cost the nation millions in lost fees, as well as depriving universities and businesses of talented students and valuable employees.
“I think it’s helpful to remember that the people who rely on USCIS and who pay its ever-increasing fees are overwhelmingly U.S. citizens, aspiring U.S. citizens and U.S. companies,” Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy during the Obama administration, told Forbes. Rand summed up the shift in legal immigration policy as “more chaos.”
While USCIS usually is self-supporting, relying on fees paid by legal applicants needing naturalization and other services, costs have increased because new employees at the agency have been concentrating on rooting out any potential fraud in immigration applications, a union statement noted.
USCIS employees, meanwhile, continue to face uncertainty and potential financial hardship. “Like so many workers during the shutdown last year, our members will be forced to find other work to pay the bills and feed their families,” said Spooner. “While employees will be able to apply for unemployment, they are seldom eligible for the federal stimulus packages... Bills won’t get paid and families will go hungry. The spending power these middle-class Americans had will be gone. Communities will suffer, as well as families.”
The union has filed grievances against the agency opposing the furloughs, Spooner added. Union members also have been reaching out to members of Congress and the media.
U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) has introduced a bill that would pay back the $1.2 billion in federal funds allocated over two years by increasing by 10 percent fees paid by legal applicants until the agency’s private funding sources stabilize, according to the union.
AFGE Council 119 also has launched a campaign urging Congressional funding for USCIS, called Americans Agree. A petition from the national AFGE has more than 15,000 signatures, a prepared statement notes.
“As a union, we will continue to fight for our members by drawing attention to these cuts and the funding we need to keep our members working and the legal immigration system functioning,” said Spooner.
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