July 09, 2020

Cardin, Van Hollen Urge USCIS to Eliminate Harmful Policies that Have Undermined the Agency’s Budget, Threatened Employees’ Livelihoods, and Hurt U.S. Immigration Services

Senators Press USCIS to Reverse Course as the Agency Considers Furloughing over 13,000 Federal Employees

WASHINGTON U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (both D-Md.) have sent a letter to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) outlining their deep concerns around reports that USCIS has sent furlough notices to over 13,000 federal employees in light of a budget shortage, caused in large part by the USCIS’s self-imposed harmful policies. In their letter, the Senators urge USCIS to reconsider these policies and to provide Congress with more information on how they intend to utilize any future funding the Congress provides.

The Senators begin, “We are deeply concerned by reports that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has sent furlough notices, some with inaccurate information, to as many as 13,400 federal employees starting August 3rd due to a $1.2 billion shortfall. USCIS claims that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a drastic reduction in fee revenue and that without additional funding from Congress, the agency will be forced to reduce staff nationwide and internationally. Many of these hard-working and skilled employees are our constituents. It is unconscionable that USCIS is furloughing employees during the COVID-19 pandemic instead of rescinding harmful policies and practices that have caused budget shortfalls.”

The Senators note that the current financial difficulties USCIS faces are rooted in the Administration’s implementation of harmful immigration policies. They underscore, “While travel restrictions resulting from COVID-19 may have impacted fee revenue, USCIS’s questionable policy decisions and fiscal mismanagement throughout the Trump Administration’s tenure have negatively impacted USCIS’s financial position. A closer examination of the agency’s budget reveals that as early as November 2019, the Trump administration used this shortfall as the basis for their 2019 proposed fee increase--the same $1.2 billion budget shortfall that it now blames on COVID-19. Since that time, USCIS has continually failed to provide necessary details about its financial position. USCIS’s current attempt to blame their financial straits on COVID-19 and to shift this burden onto its employees is unacceptable. USCIS must provide Congress with an accurate and complete explanation of its budgetary outlook.”

They close the letter, urging USCIS to rescind these harmful policies in order to prevent furloughs, shore up the USCIS budget, and to uphold their mission of assisting those who seek to live and work in the United States. They write, “Instead of rescinding its misguided policies, USCIS prefers to punish its everyday employees and current and future applicants. The overwhelming majority of employees affected by these furloughs are non-political, career civil servants who have served under multiple Administrations, are not responsible for establishing the agency’s political agenda, and should therefore not be held financially culpable for the Administration’s failure to plan for the budgetary shortfall resulting from the Administration’s misguided priorities. In order to provide any necessary funding to USCIS, Congress must know how USCIS intends to use the funds to return to its service-oriented mission and ensure the agency’s financial stability, including assurances that the Department of Homeland Security will not attempt to raid USCIS funds to further anti-immigrant policies.”

Regarding the letter, American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley said, “Furloughing nearly three-fourths of its workforce will make it entirely impossible for USCIS to carry out more than a tiny fraction of its mission, which is to administer our nation’s lawful immigration system. On behalf of the 14,500 employees we represent at the agency, AFGE extends our deepest gratitude to Senator Van Hollen and Senator Cardin for their unwavering support for the USCIS workforce and their efforts to prevent any employees from being furloughed.”

 

The full text of the letter is available here and below.

Dear Mr. Cuccinelli and Acting Director Wolf,

We are deeply concerned by reports that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has sent furlough notices, some with inaccurate information, to as many as 13,400 federal employees starting August 3rd due to a $1.2 billion shortfall. USCIS claims that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a drastic reduction in fee revenue and that without additional funding from Congress, the agency will be forced to reduce staff nationwide and internationally. Many of these hard-working and skilled employees are our constituents. It is unconscionable that USCIS is furloughing employees during the COVID-19 pandemic instead of rescinding harmful policies and practices that have caused budget shortfalls.

While travel restrictions resulting from COVID-19 may have impacted fee revenue, USCIS’s questionable policy decisions and fiscal mismanagement throughout the Trump Administration’s tenure have negatively impacted USCIS’s financial position. A closer examination of the agency’s budget reveals that as early as November 2019, the Trump administration used this shortfall as the basis for their 2019 proposed fee increase--the same $1.2 billion budget shortfall that it now blames on COVID-19. Since that time, USCIS has continually failed to provide necessary details about its financial position. USCIS’s current attempt to blame their financial straits on COVID-19 and to shift this burden onto its employees is unacceptable. USCIS must provide Congress with an accurate and complete explanation of its budgetary outlook.  

The Homeland Security Act of 2002, signed into law by President George W. Bush, created USCIS as a customer focused service-oriented agency. Congress’s longstanding intent has been to encourage naturalization. However, under the Trump Administration, USCIS has changed its focus to immigration enforcement and erected barriers to legal immigration and immigrants seeking legal status, a dramatic shift in policy. Under your leadership, USCIS has removed the phrase “nation of immigrants,” as well as any reference to applicants and petitioners as “customers,” from the agency’s mission statement. USCIS has drastically reduced refugee admissions to its lowest number since 1980 when the U.S. created a refugee resettlement program, implemented barriers for asylum seekers, and announced plans to close 13 international field offices by August 2020. The Trump Administration has implemented numerous Muslim bans, attempted to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and rescinded protections for immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Inefficient and burdensome policy changes such as mandatory review and in-person interviews for applications, even if the applicant has been previously screened and is already in the United States, have decreased the number of applicants and caused a 40 percent increase in processing delays. The backlog has continued to increase even though the number of cases received has fallen by 10 percent. These policies must be considered as contributing factors to USCIS’s budget shortfall.

At the beginning of the Trump Administration, USCIS had a surplus $800 million carryover balance, but by November 2019, USCIS projected annual deficits of $1.2 billion and a negative carryover balance of $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2020.  Despite these projected shortfalls, over the last three years the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has consistently requested that USCIS immigration benefit fees be transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to fund foolhardy policies like, the hiring of over 300 ICE law enforcement officers. In August 2019, DHS announced it would reprogram $271 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in order to provide $116 million to ICE for, among other purposes, increased detention beds. Congress consistently rejects the use of USCIS fees to offset ICE expenses and instead directs USCIS to use the funds for their intended purpose--to ensure the efficient processing of immigration petitions and applications.

USCIS is one of the few federal agencies that is primarily funded through fees. These fees are paid by immigrants and U.S. citizens and employers but the Administration’s hostile anti-immigration policies have impacted its financial outlook and metrics indicate that USCIS has failed to provide adequate services to its customers. USCIS has an obligation to provide Congress with a full and accurate accounting so that we can ensure that USCIS is using its resources properly, especially since the agency has squandered its surplus. It is clear that USCIS has enacted policies that directly impact its revenue streams.

Instead of rescinding its misguided policies, USCIS prefers to punish its everyday employees and current and future applicants. The overwhelming majority of employees affected by these furloughs are non-political, career civil servants who have served under multiple Administrations, are not responsible for establishing the agency’s political agenda, and should therefore not be held financially culpable for the Administration’s failure to plan for the budgetary shortfall resulting from the Administration’s misguided priorities. In order to provide any necessary funding to USCIS, Congress must know how USCIS intends to use the funds to return to its service-oriented mission and ensure the agency’s financial stability, including assurances that the Department of Homeland Security will not attempt to raid USCIS funds to further anti-immigrant policies. 

We urge your leadership to reconsider its policies in order to ensure that employees remain employed during these turbulent times.

Sincerely,

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