Approximately 13,400 employees of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services woke to find out they will be furloughed beginning in August, a move that will effectively bring the U.S. immigration system grinding to a halt.
In the early hours of Monday morning, USCIS employees received emails telling them the furloughs would begin on August 3 and last for at least 30 days, with the potential to last three months or longer, according to sources within USCIS. Employees were told last week that around 73% of the agency’s entire staff would be put out of work temporarily.
USCIS confirmed the furloughs in a statement to VICE News. “Though we continue to have productive conversations with Congress, we want employees who may be furloughed to have sufficient time to prepare,” a spokesperson said. “Further, we are legally required to provide employees with advance written notice at least 30 calendar days prior to the effective date of an expected furlough.”
USCIS has nearly 20,000 employees total.
Unlike most other federal agencies, a significant amount of the USCIS’s $14.8 billion operating budget — nearly 97%, according to congressional testimony from 2019 — comes from immigration fees. The reasoning given to employees for the furlough was declining revenues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
“USCIS has seen a 50% drop in receipts and incoming fees starting in March and estimates that application and petition receipts will stay well below plan through the end of Fiscal Year 2020,” the USCIS spokesperson said. “This dramatic drop in revenue has made it impossible for our agency to operate at full capacity. Without additional funding from Congress before August 3, USCIS has no choice but to administratively furlough a substantial portion of our workforce.”
That isn’t the whole story, however, according to what USCIS employees told VICE News.
“What they aren’t saying is that in addition to COVID-19, Trump keeps canceling visa categories that make us money, like H-1B [visas], certain J1s, and green card applications,” an officer furloughed within USCIS told VICE News. H-1Bs alone usually cost thousands in fees, usually paid for by the employer.
Nearly 1,500 staff members out of around 2,200 were furloughed in the agency’s Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations division, with more than 600 of those workers in non-supervisory roles. (A source told VICE News that the furloughs were top-heavy so those remaining could adjudicate, or approve or deny cases.)
“We’re left with a skeleton crew, and we’re trying to keep as much adjudicative and administrative work as possible to keep the lights on,” Jennifer Higgins, the RAIO division’s associate director, told staff in a Monday morning meeting, according to sources who attended.
On May 15, USCIS requested a $1.2 billion cash infusion from Congress “to ensure we can carry out our mission of administering our nation's lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity, and protecting the American people,” the spokesperson said. USCIS would pay the money back to the Treasury via a 10% surcharge added to applications.
Higgins said during the meeting that she was hopeful that Congress would give the agency the money it requested, but that it would be a “nailbiter,” and probably wouldn’t happen until the end of July at the earliest.
Another USCIS officer who was furloughed told VICE News, however, that the underlying funding problems are long-term in nature. “Even if Congress acts,” the employee said, “six months from now, we’ll be in the same situation.”
None of the six immigration and refugee officers VICE News spoke to said that they were surprised by the news. “Stephen Miller is getting exactly what he wanted,” one officer told VICE News, referring to President Trump’s senior advisor who oversees White House immigration policy.
Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president emerita of the National Association of Immigration Judges who has been serving as an immigration judge in San Francisco for over 30 years, said “the impact on the courts will be significant.”
“There are individuals who are put in the removal proceedings who have a qualifying relative or other basis upon which they are able to regularize their status to become eligible to be granted permanent resident status,” Marks said. “And yet the immigration courts cannot move forward in some of those situations without a USCIS decision on a preliminary application.”
Most USCIS employees VICE News spoke with said they felt saddened by the impact it would have on the immigration system.
”If Trump is reelected I have no doubt that the refugee program will cease to exist,” another immigration officer set to be furloughed told VICE News. “That our nation, one founded on the backs of immigrants will turn away those who are so deserving of the chance of a life of peace and prosperity. My heart aches for families longing to be reunited who may never have that chance.”
Another officer was more blunt. “I may be on furlough November 3,” the officer said, “But I’m sure as hell going to be in the voting booth.”
Cover: New U.S. citizens recite the Pledge of Allegiance during naturalization ceremony at the New York Public Library, July 3, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)