Immigration agency cancels plans to furlough two-thirds of workforce amid COVID-19

WASHINGTON – A plan to furlough about two-thirds of the federal workers tasked with offering citizenship, green cards and visas to immigrants – which would have effectively brought the nation's immigration system to a standstill – was canceled Tuesday, days before employees would have been removed from the payroll.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it reversed course on its plan to furlough 13,400 of its 20,000 employees Aug. 30 "as a result of unprecedented spending cuts."

The agency, which is under the Department of Homeland Security, is funded by money it makes from fees. The number of petitions seeking entry into the USA has decreased amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of petitions over President Donald Trump's first term had already seen decreases as his hard-line immigration policies became a central theme of his presidency. The president and his administration has made the process more rigorous for those seeking entry.

As a result of the pandemic, the president issued orders that barred entry into the USA by foreigners, including a halt on green cards. The agency said the pandemic led to a dramatic decline in revenue.

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USCIS asked Congress for $1.2 billion, money that had been expected to come through its next coronavirus relief package. After about two weeks of negotiations, talks dissolved as Democrats and the White House blamed each other for the stalemate.

The agency said it was able to keep its employees from furlough by "aggressive spending" cuts that will "impact all agency operations," including longer wait times on immigration cases. Though the furloughs were averted, USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow cautioned that they could happen later if Congress does not approve more funds for the agency.

"Our workforce is the backbone of every USCIS accomplishment. Their resilience and strength of character always serves the nation well, but in this year of uncertainty, they remain steadfast in their mission administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and protecting the American people, even as a furlough loomed before them," Edlow said in a statement. "However, 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 furlough."

For weeks, lawmakers and union leaders pressured the agency to keep its employees on the payroll. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle applauded the news.

"I’m glad USCIS has rethought this decision, which would have crippled our immigration system and left so many in limbo," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement. "The coronavirus pandemic already leaves us with so much uncertainty for the future, and I’m glad USCIS will continue to help families achieve the American Dream."

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it was "welcome news," but 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 American Federation of Government Employees, which represents USCIS employees, noted all the work that went into ensuring workers would remain on the payroll.

“This is a major win for the hardworking and essential employees at USCIS," AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement. "While the immediate threat of furloughs has passed, we still need Congress to act to prevent similar funding challenges and ensure that the agency is able to operate without further threats to workers and their jobs."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19: Immigration agency cancels plans for massive furlough