Recently, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—the agency tasked with processing adjustment of status, naturalization, asylum, and refugee applications—began sending furlough notices to 13,000 employees, nearly three-quarters of its workforce. The notices informed employees that furloughs would last for at least a month starting August 3, 2020, but no more than 90 days. USCIS maintained that this notice did not signal permanent separation from the agency.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent immigration regulations implemented by the Trump administration, USCIS has seen a 50% decrease in application filing fees since March. Since the vast majority of USCIS funding comes from application fees, the budget will likely remain below the agency’s targets, causing the mass furloughs. USCIS has asked Congress for $1.2 billion in emergency funding before the furloughs take effect to offset the losses and has requested permission to increase fees 10% to reimburse this funding.
Despite the temporary nature of the measure and with USCIS’s plans to request funding from Congress, the furloughs could have a massive effect on the immigration system.
For example, disillusioned USCIS employees could seek to abandon the agency altogether. Concerns that the furloughs could turn into permanent layoffs have emerged stemming from the Trump administration’s efforts to limit legal immigration and the lack of urgency from USCIS and Congress to address employees’ concerns. Moreover, while furloughed workers may find outside employment, they must receive approval from the USCIS to ensure that their outside employment does not represent a conflict of interest (such as if they seek work with nonprofits or immigration law firms). Other employees have expressed interest in other federal jobs, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As such, because USCIS would furlough most of its workforce, it has alienated very capable and competent employees.
For those who rely on USCIS to work and live in the United States (e.g.: those using employment-based visas or seeking naturalization, asylum, or refuge) the furloughs will further strain USCIS services. The suspension of so many employees will likely cause the agency to suffer systemic damage. Temporary closures of the agency’s service centers have already significantly increased processing times for certain applications. As a result, the furloughs will leave more processing centers understaffed and unprepared to handle applications for visas, green cards, and other services.