Federal immigration agency cancels furloughs

Spending cuts expected to increase wait times

EMPLOYEES THAT WORK for the federal agency that processes immigrant visas found out Tuesday morning they won’t be furloughed after all, but the spending cuts that allowed the agency to keep its workers on board are expected to increase wait times for immigrants.

Officials with US Citizenship and Immigration Services sent an email to employees Tuesday morning announcing the cancellation of the furlough, which was planned to start August 30 and affect more than 70 percent of the agency’s workers.

“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 furloughs,” said Joseph Edlow, deputy director for policy, in a press statement. “A return to normal operating procedures requires congressional intervention to sustain the agency through fiscal year 2021.”

The agency, which has offices in Boston and Lawrence, processes naturalization, green card, asylum, and refugee applications. It also makes adjudicative decisions on those applications and manages immigration benefits, including employment authorizations. While federal contracts for processing and preparing case files have been scaled back, citizenship ceremonies will continue as planned.

Although jobs are saved for the time being, the financial issues for the organization and sudden cuts to the contracting services that review applications have employees concerned.

One employee in the Boston office, who didn’t want to be identified out of concern over retribution, said that the furloughs were not the beginning of issues at the agency, and that the pandemic has only exacerbated them. “Before COVID, financial problems were apparent–hiring freezes, overtime no longer available,” said the employee.

The majority of USCIS funding comes from fees paid by applicants and petitioners – not appropriated or taxpayer funds. USCIS saw a 50 percent drop in fees between March and June and estimated that revenue will stay well below budget targets through the end of the current fiscal year on September 30. A controversial decision by President Trump to not grant many kinds of employment-based visas through the end of the year will also decrease revenues.

On May 15, USCIS notified Congress of a projected budget shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and requested emergency funding of $1.2 billion, to be repaid with a 10 percent surcharge on applications.

Edlow said Congress “must act on a long-term fix.” Funding for the agency is part of a $1.2 billion coronavirus relief package, but negotiations between Democrats and the White House dissolved two weeks ago before the August recess.

“It is clear that USCIS has sufficient funds to continue operations for several more months and should not have been planning these furloughs. I hope to see USCIS continue its operations because immigrant applicants, who have already paid significant filing fees, are awaiting interviews and decisions on their cases,” said Eliana Nader, head of the New England chapter for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Attorneys are applauding the agency’s decision to avert the furloughs, but have concerns over the growing backlog of cases the budget situation is creating, especially now that resources are being cut.

“In an election year, when immigrants are waiting for their naturalization applications to be processed and decided, the efficiency of USCIS is especially important,” Nader said.

Massachusetts had over 17,000 pending naturalization applications as of March, according to quarterly data. The current wait times for citizenship applications is estimated between nine and 13 months in Massachusetts, according to an agency website. Wait time in Massachusetts has nearly doubled since 2016, according to Project Citizenship, a nonprofit that works with immigrants seeking to be naturalized.