Aug 26, 2020
USCIS Avoided Furloughs and Will Stay Open through September 30th End of the Fiscal Year
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced today that the agency will remain open through the end of the 2020 fiscal year. The word at the end of July was that the agency would essentially shut down at the end of August due to unprecedented deficits. The agency delayed the furlough plan and kept its employees working, in hopes that either Congress would bail the agency out or revenues would increase enough as the pandemic economic restrictions eased. That gamble appears to have paid off and the agency has sufficient resources to self-fund through this fiscal year.
USCIS is a “self-funded agency;” most of its operational budget comes from fees. Congress has increasingly relied upon this legislative tool to give agency management more direct control over contracting and expenditures and to insulate agencies from the frequent budget crises in Washington. USCIS is among the largest of the government agencies to enjoy self-funding status; it has helped the agency make significant technological advances, almost entirely avoid furloughs, and budget deficit related problems. However, 2020 is a remarkable year and the drop in revenue, coupled with administration mandates created a budget crisis that looked like it would shut the agency entirely down. The July delay in furloughing employees was risky but it looks like it paid off and that USCIS will be able to avoid that choice, one that would have brought U.S. immigration to a screeching halt.
USCIS has notified Congress that it will not furlough employees this fiscal year.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) delayed unpaid furloughs of USCIS employees so that Congress could explore funding options for the agency’s shortfalls. In explaining the decision, USCIS spokesperson Jessica Baker Collins stated “[t]his delay is intended to allow Congress enough time to act and provide USCIS with the funding needed in order to avert the administrative furlough altogether.” Congress didn’t come through with funding but, in the intervening month, revenue has increased enough to cover costs through the September 30, 2020 end of the fiscal year and the agency believes that tightening its belt can get USCIS through this year.
What budget cost-cutting measures will be visible to the public?
A furlough of 70% of USCIS’ officers and staff would have brought U.S. immigration to a near halt, so keeping them working should move cases along and allow for near normal operations, albeit with significant delays. USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow put it this way: “averting this furlough comes at a severe operational cost that will increase backlogs and wait times across the board…” Perhaps most importantly, the cuts will directly impact the contractors who support USCIS operations. Case inquiries, increased adjudication times as officers do more administrative tasks, and loss of overtime that is so frequently used to catch up on delayed work, are going to impact the agency’s backlogs, processing times, and ability to manage the flow of materials, particularly files and mail.
That USCIS will continue to operate through the end of the 2020 fiscal year is good news. A furlough would have been disastrous on a number of levels but the agency isn’t out of the woods. The cuts are to agency essential resources and USCIS can only bear those cuts for so long before lasting damage to services are incurred. As Deputy Director Edlow warned today, “[a] return to normal operating procedures requires congressional intervention to sustain the agency through fiscal year 2021.” Given that Congress went home for its August break and is sprinting into election year activities, it remains to be seen if USCIS is done with this mess or has just kicked the can down the road.
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