US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency within Homeland Security responsible for adjudicating applications and petitions seeking immigration and naturalization benefits, announced on Tuesday, August 25, 2020, that it will not engage in en masse staffing furloughs before the close of the fiscal year on September 30, 2020.  As previously reported on Mayer Brown’s Mobile Workforce blog, the agency had planned to furlough 13,000 USCIS staff, equal to 70% of its workforce, by August 31.

The planned furloughs were expected to dramatically reduce the agency’s ability to process immigration benefits, including visa petitions, green cards, citizenship, and other immigration benefits, with some predictions expecting the agency to come grinding to a halt.  While furloughs are off the table through at least September 30, the agency has signaled that users can expect significant delays, as the agency has had to engage in “aggressive spending measures” to offset the budgetary pressures that initially led it to identify a need for across-the-board furloughs.

Over the past several days, lawmakers from both parties urged USCIS to forego the furloughs, indicating they would impose a “devastating human toll” and were not financially required. Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, for example, has been a vocal opponent of furloughs, indicating since early summer that USCIS is facing a budgetary surplus of more than $230 million, rather than any shortfall, this fiscal year.  Various lawmakers have echoed this point and indicated the agency has sufficient funds to continue operations through November, as reported today.

USCIS continues to press for Congressional aid to avoid furloughs after the fiscal year close on September 30, however.  USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow indicated that “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. A return to normal operating procedures requires congressional intervention to sustain the agency through fiscal year 2021.”  The House unanimously passed an emergency stopgap measure Saturday, August 22, but the bill’s future is uncertain as the Senate will be in recess the rest of August.

Mayer Brown partner Liz Stern was quoted as follows in Politico (subscription required).

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if a furlough of this size and scope occurred, that it could be crippling to applications generally. Continuity of status, not having gaps in employment authorization and authorization [for workers] to stay [in the U.S.], is absolutely essential if you’re running a workforce.

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