Faced with a pandemic-related budget shortfall, employees at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are beginning to receive their furlough notices ahead of possible administrative actions in early August.
The notices were practically inevitable, as USCIS and other federal agencies are required by law to give their employees 30 days of advance notice before the expected date of a furlough. Without congressional action, the agency anticipates it will exhaust its current funding around Aug. 3.
“On or before July 2, approximately 13,400 USCIS employees will receive notice that if USCIS must proceed with an administrative furlough, they would be furloughed beginning Aug. 3,” an agency spokesman said in an email to Federal News Network. “Though we continue to have productive conversations with Congress, we want employees who may be furloughed to have sufficient time to prepare.”
It’s unclear exactly how long employees could be furloughed, but USCIS expects them to last longer than 30 days.
According to the furlough notices themselves, copies of which Federal News Network reviewed, employees will be placed in non-duty and non-pay status for anywhere between 30 to 90 days.
“Since this is a furlough of over 30 days, this action is taken in accordance with the reduction in force (RIF) regulations in [Title 5 of the U.S. Code],” the notice reads. “Importantly though, while this action is taken in accordance with RIF regulations, a furlough is a temporary action, not a permanent separation from service.”
“At this time, we do not reasonably anticipate the need for a furlough of 90 days or more,” the notice continues. “However, should additional furlough days be necessary, you will be issued another notice.”
The furlough notices come as multiple members of the Trump administration have urged Congress to provide USCIS with additional appropriations.
The USCIS proposal includes a $1.2 billion injection of emergency appropriations up front, as well as a 10% surcharge on the agency’s application fees.
“The Office of Management and Budget supports USCIS’ ‘pay it forward’ deficit neutral approach to ensure full cost recovery of any additional emergency funding provided by the U.S. Treasury to USCIS,” Russell Vought, OMB’s acting director, wrote in a June 19 letter to Senate appropriators.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf also urged Congress last week to act.
“The USCIS workforce is dedicated to carrying out the congressional mandate to protect the integrity of our immigration system and secure the homeland,” he said in a June 24 letter to Congress. “Without your support, the operations and agency contributions to this mission are in jeopardy.”
Unlike most other agencies, USCIS is a fee-for-service organization, meaning it relies on the revenue it collects through work like visitor petitions and citizenship applications, for example, to keep the organization running.
But the agency’s immigration examinations fee collections haven’t met their anticipated projections for the year, Wolf said.
USCIS estimated a 61% drop in application and petition requests, in part due to the pandemic, through the end of fiscal 2020. Though USCIS said it has limited salary increases and taken other steps to keep its expenses low, the agency has said it needed to take “drastic action” to keep the organization afloat.
Still, higher citizenship fees won’t immediately resolve USCIS’ funding challenges.
“While we have been working expeditiously to finalize the 2019/2020 fee rule to help recover our operational costs, even with higher fees, once implemented, USCIS will still face funding challenges as long as application and petition receipts continue at current levels,” the furlough notice reads. “To address our fiscal situation during these uncertain times, we also have taken measures to tighten our budget across the board while upholding our mission. Unfortunately, the measures we have taken are not enough at this time.”
In a June 3 update to industry on its financial situation, USCIS said it was reviewing its entire contract portfolio and prioritizing mission critical requirements. Funding must be prioritized for employee payroll, the agency said.
“As a result, industry partners can expect reductions or cancellations of future contract actions (both new starts and re-compete actions), as well as reductions in scope of current contracts, future options not being exercised or negotiated to reduce scope and terminations for convenience being issued,” the update reads.
CBP leadership ‘not anticipating’ furloughs right now
A second DHS subcomponent is also grappling with pandemic-related budget shortfalls, though the prospect of employee furloughs aren’t an immediate concern.
“No, I’m not anticipating that right now,” Mark Morgan, the senior official performing the duties of the Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said when asked whether he’ll need to furlough any officers.
Morgan testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee late last week.
“About 40% of the workforce is funded through user fees,” he added. “We’re seeing a significant reduction. We’re looking at a $600-to-$700 million shortfall in user fees. It’s definitely a challenge. We’re working with DHS. We’re working with OMB. We’re working with our appropriators to try to find a solution.”
CBP user fees fund at least 8,000 field officer positions, according to the National Treasury Employees Union, which warned House members of the agency’s budget challenges earlier this month.
Unlike USCIS, where immigration examination fees keep a large percentage of the agency running, CBP OFO’s funding shortfall impacts only a portion of the agency. The Office of Field Operations, however, is the largest CBP component.
Under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), CBP collects immigration inspection fees to cover the costs of processing certain land, sea, air and rail shipments and carriers. Trade and travel volume is down during the pandemic, leading to the multi-million dollar partial funding shortfall.