WASHINGTON – A plan to furlough about two-third of the federal workers tasked with offering citizenship, green cards and visas to immigrants — which would have effectively brought the nation’s immigration system to a standstill — was canceled on Tuesday just days before employees would have been removed from the payroll.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Tuesday that it was reversing course on its plan to furlough 13,400 of its 20,000 employees on Aug. 30 “as a result of unprecedented spending cuts and a steady increase in daily incoming revenue and receipts.”
The agency, which is under the Department of Homeland Security, is funded by money it makes from fees. But the number of petitions seeking entry into the U.S has decreased amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The number of petitions over President Donald Trump’s first term had already seen decreases as his hard-line immigration policies have become a central theme of his presidency. The president and his administration has made the process more rigorous for those seeking entry to the U.S.
As a result of the pandemic, the president had set new orders that barred entry into the U.S. by foreigners, including a halt on green cards. The agency said the pandemic also led to a dramatic decline in revenue.
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USCIS asked Congress for $1.2 billion, money that had been expected to come through its next coroanvirus relief package. But after about two weeks of negotiations, talks dissolved as Democrats and the White House blamed each other for the stalemate.
The agency said it was able to keep its employees from furlough by “aggressive spending” cuts that will “impact all agency operations,” including longer wait times on pending immigration cases. While the furloughs were averted, USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow cautioned that they could happen at a later time if Congress does not approve more funds for the agency.
“Our workforce is the backbone of every USCIS accomplishment. Their resilience and strength of character always serves the nation well, but in this year of uncertainty, they remain steadfast in their mission administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and protecting the American people, even as a furlough loomed before them,” Edlow said in a statement. “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 furlough.”
The announcement comes after weeks of lawmakers and union leadership pressuring the agency to keep its employees on the payroll. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle applauded the news.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he was grateful for the announcement because the furloughs would have “crippled our immigration system.”
“I’m glad USCIS has rethought this decision, which would have crippled our immigration system and left so many in limbo,” he said in a statement. “The coronavirus pandemic already leaves us with so much uncertainty for the future, and I’m glad USCIS will continue to help families achieve the American Dream.”
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it was “welcome news” but also noted the “emotional strain placed on these members of our communities who did not know when their next paycheck would come was a completely needless crisis imposed by the Trump administration.”
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents USCIS employees, also applauded the news and noted all the work that went into ensuring workers would remain on the payroll.
“This is a major win for the hardworking and essential employees at USCIS,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement. “While the immediate threat of furloughs has passed, we still need Congress to act to prevent similar funding challenges and ensure that the agency is able to operate without further threats to workers and their jobs.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19: Immigration services cancels plans for massive furlough