Will USCIS Furloughs Delay Processing Times?
Updated on August 16, 2020
Unlike most government agencies, USCIS is mostly self-funded. 95% of their budget comes from the processing fees they charge for adjudicating immigration applications. USCIS maintains that COVID-19 has caused a decrease in such applications, decreasing overall revenue by 60%. They propose repaying this money by a 10% increase on most agency fees. This fee hike would be on top of the approximately 20% fee increase already expected to take effect in October. Furlough of federal workers are not uncommon, with three in the past 10 years due to government shutdowns. However, since USCIS is mostly self-funded, it has been unaffected by such shutdowns in the past.
The furlough was originally scheduled to go into effect on August 3. In July, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who is the Senate Appropriations Committee Vice-Chair, announced that new projections showed USCIS ending the fiscal year with a surplus and that the agency had agreed to delay any furloughs until August 31. USCIS still says that they need additional funds to cover projected budget shortfalls. A possible bailout is being negotiated as part of an overall coronavirus relief fund. As of this writing, Congress and the White House still have not been able to come to an agreement on the details of that relief fund. Failure to reach an agreement could lead to a furlough extending until October 1.
2. What will a furlough do to USCIS processing times?
Most immigration experts believe that furloughing such a high percentage of USCIS employees would have a devastating effect on the U.S. immigration system and that it would essentially grind to a halt. USCIS typically processes 26,000 cases per day, a furlough would likely slow that to a trickle.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that each month of a furlough would add another 75,000 cases to the backlog. What is notable about these increased processing times is that the overall number of cases filed per year has dropped. For example, the number of Green Card petitions filed dropped 17% between 2016 and 2019. The number of people outside the U.S. applying for temporary visas likewise dropped 17%.
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It is impossible to know with certainty how exactly furloughs would affect processing times, though almost everybody agrees that it will result in slower processing times, with some predicting much longer processing times. Furloughs would likely have real life consequences for immigrants that would be felt immediately.
People with work authorization might not be able to renew their authorization before it expires, causing them to lose jobs. Temporary immigrants might not be able to extend their status, causing them to fall out of status and making them vulnerable to deportation. Separated families hoping to reunite through a Green Card would be left in limbo. People applying for citizenship who are hoping to vote in this November’s presidential election might not be able to do so. Employers who have offered jobs to foreign workers might have to leave jobs unfilled for long periods of time. Families, businesses, universities, hospitals and religious institutions could all feel the impact.
Congress will have to resolve this issue. Both political parties agree that something needs to be done, but Republicans are generally in favor of to giving the money without any strings attached, while Democrats want it tied to agency reforms. Resolution is further complicated because relief is expected to be part of a new Coronavirus relief bill, Democrats have agreed on a bill within their caucus, but Republicans still have not, nor has Congress and the White House agreed on a bill.