By Michelle Hackman
WASHINGTON -- The federal agency that runs the U.S. legal immigration system said Friday it is delaying plans to furlough 70% of its staff until Aug. 31, giving Congress several more weeks to address its budget shortfall.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, unlike most of the federal government, largely depends on funding from fees it collects on citizenship, green card and other immigration applications, which fell sharply during the coronavirus pandemic when it shut its offices.
The pandemic compounded the agency's budget outlook, which has been processing fewer applications in the past few years, largely due to numerous Trump administration policies restricting immigration.
In mid-May, the agency told Congress it needed to borrow $1.2 billion to avoid furloughing more than 13,000 of its 19,000 employees on Aug. 3, a move that would bring most of the agency's routine services to a standstill. That action was delayed because in recent weeks, immigration applications -- and revenue -- picked up as USCIS reopened its offices in June.
Last week, the agency told Congress it now projects ending the fiscal year in September with a $121 million surplus, according to a spokesman for Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Much of the surplus, however, can't be used to pay employees because of accounting rules. The money is also targeted to pay for contracts the agency agreed to.
It said Friday it had opted to delay the planned furloughs this week because talks in Congress to provide it with additional money had made progress.
"This delay is intended to allow Congress enough time to act and provide USCIS with the funding needed in order to avert the administrative furlough all together," said USCIS spokeswoman Jessica Collins.
Under the Aug. 3 timeline, affected employees would have been out for 30 days, or until September, even if lawmakers reached a deal a day after their furlough began.
USCIS operates offices around the country, and small communities from Vermont to California were bracing for hundreds of temporary job losses.
If furloughs proceed on Aug. 31, the action would bring much of the nation's immigration system to a standstill. People wouldn't be able to have their visas or green cards processed, and potentially hundreds of immigrants waiting to become citizens wouldn't be able to take their oaths in time for the 2020 election.
"While this delay is a step in the right direction, more must be done to protect the jobs of these essential employees," said Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Congressional aides in both parties say money for the agency is likely to be included in a coming coronavirus aid package, though it isn't clear when such a bill could be finalized.
"That's something we are working on together in a bipartisan, bicameral, " way, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) said in an interview Wednesday. "We need to have a bridge for those individuals...we can find common ground."
House Democrats and Republicans have been negotiating with USCIS leadership since June and believe they are close to a deal that the Senate could also support. The main sticking point, aides say, is how the agency would repay the government once applications resume their normal pace.
USCIS leadership proposed charging a 10% surcharge on all immigration applications, an option House Democrats have rejected because the agency already plans to raise some fees and nearly double the citizenship application fee in coming months.
Democrats also want to prohibit any money they give to the agency from being transferred to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection, as the agency has previously sought to do. Republicans would prefer not to put any restrictions on the money, according congressional aides.
--Kristina Peterson contributed to this article.
Write to Michelle Hackman at Michelle.Hackman@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 24, 2020 21:04 ET (01:04 GMT)Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.