U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services canceled more than 13,000 employee furloughs Tuesday, averting a catastrophe for the cash-strapped agency that oversees the nation's legal immigration system.
Officials said "unprecedented spending cuts" and a revenue increase allowed the agency to drop the furloughs, but they warned of longer wait times and further backlogs, including for those seeking work permits, green cards or citizenship.
"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," Joseph Edlow, USCIS deputy director for policy, said in a statement. "A return to normal operating procedures requires congressional intervention to sustain the agency through fiscal year 2021."
The agency had warned that without $1.2 billion in emergency funding from Congress, it would have been forced to furlough roughly 70% of its workforce starting Sunday, drastically curbing operations.
It says it will maintain operations through September, when the the fiscal year ends. The cuts include nonessential travel and reducing work sent to private contractors who handle paperwork.
The agency's roughly $4.8 billion budget comes almost entirely from application fees it charges to live or work in the country. While revenue had dropped after a number of immigration restrictions by the Trump administration, USCIS blamed the coronavirus pandemic.
The agency, which shuttered operations for more than two months, said COVID-19 caused its revenue to decline by half. Starting Oct. 2, the agency will increase its fees by roughly 20% on average and scrap fee waivers, including for asylum-seekers.
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Danielle Spooner, head of the union representing agency employees, said she was grateful to hear the decision, but there were no guarantees.
"Members are a little restless, they don’t know what else is going to come," she said. "It isn't over yet."
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont called it welcome news. The citizenship agency employs about 1,700 employees in the state, most of whom had received furlough notices.
"The emotional strain placed on these members of our communities who did not know when their next paycheck would come was a completely needless crisis imposed by the Trump administration," the Democrat said in a statement. "I look forward to continuing to work on a long term solution to ensure the solvency of this vital agency into the future."
The American Immigration Lawyers Association, which has sued over the fee increases, said the agency waited too long to announce that furloughs were off.
"Rather than making the decision sooner, USCIS used its employees’ livelihoods and the immigration system as political pawns," said Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, the association's director of government relations. "This crisis is the direct result of gross mismanagement and policies that have made USCIS functionally unable to execute its mission of fair and efficient adjudications."