Immigration Officers Face Furloughs as Visa Applications Plunge
WASHINGTON — Three years of restrictive and sometimes draconian immigration policies have left families separated, applicants for visas stranded and would-be immigrants looking for alternative destinations.
Now a new group is facing uncertainty, driven in part by the coronavirus pandemic and President Trump’s immigration policies: thousands of employees of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Nearly 70 percent of the agency faces furloughs because the immigration processing fees that fund it have plummeted.
Joseph Edlow, the deputy director for policy of the agency, which screens people seeking immigration relief and protection, has told his approximately 19,000 employees that the decline in revenue from fees attached to immigration and visa applications during the pandemic has forced the agency to turn to Congress for an emergency infusion of $1.2 billion.
But Democrats and Republicans said the administration had yet to provide sufficient information about the funding request, and Citizenship and Immigration Services is preparing to furlough nearly 13,400 employees by Aug. 3.
The cause of the budget crunch is in dispute.
Some agency employees and members of Congress blame Mr. Trump’s restrictive policies, which have dried up fee revenue by adding to delays and backlogs of visa applications.
Top administration officials point to the pandemic. The agency has seen a 50 percent drop in fees from applications since March.
Regardless of cause, the effect is real. Russell T. Vought, the acting White House budget director, told lawmakers the agency’s fee receipts could fall by more than 60 percent by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. Of the agency’s $4.8 billion budget, 97 percent comes from such fees.
“This feels like the culmination of three and a half years of policy change and policy shifts, one after another in terms of restricting immigration,” said Jason Marks, a steward for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1924, which represents some Citizenship and Immigration Services employees.
Mr. Marks, who also works as an asylum training officer, recently received a furlough notice.
In more than a dozen interviews, officers with the agency and members of Congress said the furloughs would not just harm the personal lives of the employees and worsen morale in the agency. They will also clog the legal immigration system.
“U.S.C.I.S. operations heavily rely on the revenue raised from fees from applicants and petitioners,” Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a separate letter supporting the emergency funding request. “In many ways, U.S.C.I.S. operates more like a traditional business rather than a government agency funded entirely by appropriations.”
Citizenship and Immigration Services officials have told Congress they would repay the funds to the Treasury Department by adding a 10 percent surcharge on applications filed, despite the fact that the pandemic has drastically slowed such processing.
Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill said they needed a formal request for the emergency aid that included how the money would be spent.
“O.M.B. has not been forthcoming with information right now,” said Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, the top Democrat responsible for overseeing immigration and homeland security funding.
“We’re also asking for some accountability,” she said, adding that the priority should be to avoid layoffs.
Last year, when Homeland Security Department officials pressed Congress for $4.6 billion in emergency border funds, some Democrats pushed back out of concern that the money would contribute to immigration enforcement. Those suspicions only increased after a report last month from the Government Accountability Office found that Customs and Border Protection had spent $112 million of funds meant for food and medicine on all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and boats.
“Congress is willing to work with the administration, but we can’t write a blank check for them to continue operating U.S.C.I.S. in a way that is running our legal immigration system into the ground,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Democrats are not alone in saying they need more from the administration.
“If they really want it, they’re going to have to formally ask for it,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Even Danielle Spooner, the president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 119, the union that represents more than 14,100 U.S.C.I.S. employees, agreed that any of the funding should come with additional oversight.
Robert Kuhlman, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said the administration had provided Congress with the appropriate request to secure the funds. “Our hope is that congressional Democrats accept our proposal to keep the lights on,” he said.
A senior homeland security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue said the budget office needed to provide Congress with a formal request for the funds to be secured.
Both Democrats and Republicans said that they were focused on preventing the furloughs and that it was possible to include additional aid into another coronavirus relief package.
Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the top Republican overseeing homeland security spending, said adding aid to another coronavirus relief package could be one way to support the agency, since the pandemic had contributed to the collapse of revenue.
“We want to prevent those layoffs,” she said on Wednesday.
Michael Knowles, the president of the A.F.G.E. Local 1924, said the employees he represented felt caught in the middle.
“You’ve got people who don’t like our administration’s policies saying, ‘Why should we give more money to fund an agency that’s being used to fund things like M.P.P.?’” Mr. Knowles said, referring to the Migrant Protection Protocols policy, which forces migrants to wait in Mexico while their cases for asylum in the United States are processed. “And then on the other hand, you’ve got people on the right wing who don’t want to fund the agency saying, ‘Why would we fund an agency who’s been giving away the key to America for years?’”
Citizenship and Immigration Services suspended most of its activities on March 18 as states imposed social-distancing measures, delaying citizenship ceremonies for thousands of potential immigrants.
But the agency’s bleak finances cannot be attributed to just the pandemic, said Cristobal Ramón, the senior immigration policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist research organization in Washington. The administration has also increased vetting of applications, banned travel from many countries and instituted other policies that have deterred would-be immigrants, foreign students, travelers and temporary workers.
One example is the “public charge” rule the administration put in place this year that denied immigrants green cards if they were deemed likely to use government benefit programs like food stamps or subsidized housing. Immigration advocates have said the policy has deterred many people from applying for legal permanent residence.
Citizenship and Immigration Services had forecast financial troubles long before the pandemic when it proposed raising citizenship fees for most by more than 60 percent last November.
“I think you will see a lot of U.S.C.I.S. employees questioning whether they want to be working there in the long term,” Mr. Ramón said. “It’s hard to wake up every morning and arrive at the office not knowing what your job is going to entail because the orders given by senior-level leadership change day to day.”
For some, that exodus has already begun. Jillian Morgan joined the agency in January 2017 to work in refugee processing but left in May after many of her colleagues had been directed to carry out policies that forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico or deported them to Central America.
“I joined the government to be a protection officer,” she said. But with her new assignments, “there was a high chance we would place someone in danger, and I was not comfortable being a part of that.”
Jessica Collins, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, pointed to a 2019 report that showed job satisfaction at the agency was rated at 75 percent, based on a survey answered by two-thirds of the work force.
Ms. Collins also provided a statement from Mr. Edlow, the deputy director, that stressed the dire immediate future those employees now face.
“This week, thousands of dedicated public servants received possible furlough notices, causing concern for their livelihood during these challenging times,” Mr. Edlow said. “The last thing we want is for Congress to play politics with our work force.”