US Citizenship and Immigration Services staff face furlough

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President Donald J. Trump on issues with China and the termination of U.S. relations with the World health Organization 29 May 2020.

The White House / Public Domain

Comments by Sanwar Ali:

We are still waiting to hear if there will be a temporary non-immigrant worker visa ban for certain US visa categories.  The current coronavirus COVID-19 situation may be used as an excuse for what in reality, if it happens, will be some sort of partial work visa suspension. 

If there is a visa suspension presumably this will affect both funding for USCIS and the amount of work that needs to be done by USCIS workers.  Perhaps a partial work visa ban will also lead to USCIS workers being furloughed.  We do not know what will happen in reality.   However, this is what is apparently being considered:

  • All new H1B visa specialty occupation worker applications would be banned unless the worker will be paid at the highest wage level (Level 4), as designated by the DOL. Apparently professions, in business, finance, research, and the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields may be affected.  Presumably due to the coronavirus COVID-19 situation health care workers working in this area will not be included in the ban.
  • All new L1 visa intracompany transferees, which is for transfers from the overseas office to the US office could be banned.  This could affect international executives, managers, or employees with advanced or specialized knowledge.  This is a very useful visa category, as unlike the H1B visa category there is no quota.
  • All new H2B visa temporary non-agricultural workers unless the work is essential to maintenance of the US food supply chain.  There are many jobs where it is difficult to find US citizens and Green Card holders to do the work.   This will cause serious problems in many industries.

In addition to this consideration is being given to adding further restrictions to OPT Optional Practical Training for F1 student visa holders in the US and preventing H4 visa spouses from working.  It remains to be seen what will happen.  Trump’s last “immigration ban” of 22 April 2020 was not as far reaching as many expected. 

Thousands of staff working for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) face being furloughed by the end of July, unless Congress intervenes with emergency funds. Workpermit.com recently reported that the government agency is on the brink of collapse and sought a $1.2 billion cash injection from Congress to stay afloat.

USCIS relies heavily on US visa and citizenship application fees to carry out its day-to-day operations. However, a slump in applications has left the agency cash-strapped and in need of a government bailout.

USCIS deputy director for policy, Joseph Edlow, said: “Without intervention from Congress, USCIS will be forced to start furloughing staff from July 20.”

USCIS Dramatic revenue decrease

Mr Edlow said that he has informed lawmakers and USCIS personnel of the agency’s ‘dramatic drop’ in revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic and in doing so, hopes that Congress will respond favorably to its request in order to avoid disruption to agency operations.

The union that represents thousands of USCIS staff was notified on 26 May that approximately 10,800 bargaining employees could face furloughs lasting more than 30 days, according to a letter obtained by CBS News.

A USCIS spokesperson confirmed that furloughs are an option, but refused to specify how many employees could be affected.

In a letter to the president of the national union for agency employees Danielle Spooner, a top USCIS official wrote: “The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on our agency’s financial outlook.”

“Since the declaration of the national emergency, application and petition receipts dropped to half their previous levels and with them, agency revenue that keeps our doors open,” the letter added.

USCIS setup after 9/11 terror attacks

Formed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror atrocities in 2001, USCIS oversees legal immigration to the US and is responsible for adjudicating green card, work permit, and asylum requests, plus other immigration benefits for non-US citizens.

USCIS shut its doors to the public on March 18 amid the coronavirus pandemic, but there are plans for the agency to reopen on June 4. However, the USCIS shutdown has restricted the agency’s ability to carry out certain requirements of its visa processing protocols, including biometric gathering, in-person interviews and US citizenship ceremonies.

The agency estimates that US visa and citizenship applications will continue to decline by approximately 61 percent through to September. USCIS officials predict that by the end of the summer, the agency will run out of funds, but said that spending has been limited to ‘mission critical’ activities only.

The request for a $1.2 billion cash injection from Congress will be paid back to the US Treasury Department, a pledge made by USCIS officials. However, the proposal will mean US visa and immigration applicants will be subject to a 10 percent surcharge on their petitions in order for USCIS to pay back what it borrows.

In the letter sent to the president of the national USCIS union, the government agency said that it was ‘hoping to use $571.12 million in funds to cover wages, rent, office contracts, and fingerprint and background check processing, plus IT services for the remainder of the 2020 fiscal year.

The remaining funds, approximately $650 million, would be used to ensure that ‘sufficient resources are available’ for the start of the 2021 fiscal year, the letter said.

White House budget office backs USCIS request

It’s understood that the White House budget office has backed the request made by USCIS to Congress for a cash injection.

A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said: “The Administration supports efforts to ensure USCIS operations continue until fee revenues resume through a surcharge cost recovery approach that will result in no additional cost to the American taxpayer or increase the deficit.

“The OMB has been working closely with DHS to identify mitigation strategies and supports a ‘pay it forward’ deficit neutral approach that ensures full cost recovery of any emergency supplemental.”

However, some have argued that the coronavirus pandemic is not the only culprit behind USCIS’ financial hardship. US asylum officer and president of the local union for USCIS employees in the Washington, D.C. area, Michael Knowles, claims that immigration restrictions imposed by the Trump administration have likely affected the agency’s revenue.

Under the Trump administration, several restrictive immigration measures have been introduced to prevent migrants from obtaining permanent residency and asylum.

Since February 2020, USCIS has been enforcing the controversial public charge rule, which gives US immigration caseworkers more power to refuse green cards and visas for migrants if they use government aid.

Congressional aid

Mr Knowles said that he understands why there are reservations inside Congress, especially among Democrats, to grant emergency funding based on the Trump administration’s immigration agenda. However, Knowles pointed out that everyone would suffer from large-scale furloughs, including USCIS employees, immigrant applicants and US citizens.

Knowles told CBS News: “These are not only services providing benefits to immigrants, but these are services provided to American citizens who are petitioning for family members, people who are adopting children. We also provide services to employers who are verifying the legal status of their employees.”

“We should not be looking for the immigration services agency to fail,” he added.

Coronavirus in the US

The coronavirus death toll in the US has now passed 100,000, to which Donald Trump has responded with his condolences, while continuing to blame China for the crisis. Meanwhile, job losses as a result of the pandemic have exceeded 40 million and unemployment claims recently rose by 2.1 million in just one week.

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