Will USCIS Furloughs Delay Processing Times?
Updated on August 16, 2020
2020 has not been an easy year to try to get a U.S. visa. So far, this year has seen the implementation of the new, more onerous public charge rule (which is on hold for now while it is challenged in court), temporary closure of U.S. consulates and USCIS offices due to COVID-19, temporary border closures, a presidential proclamation halting the issuance of many types of visas and now, a threatened furlough of USCIS employees.
USCIS (United Sates Citizenship and Immigration Services) has requested a $1.2 billion bailout from Congress, stating that they need these additional funds to continue operations. They blame the budget shortfall on the COVID-19 pandemic and say that without this additional funding they will be forced to furlough 13,400 of their 18,700 employees, which is more than 70% of their workforce.
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.
Agency critics charge that procedures implemented by USCIS during the past few years are responsible for the budget crisis. Critics, such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), contend that new USCIS policies such as those that mandate interviews for all employment-based adjustment of status applications, no longer giving deference to previous approvals for status renewal cases, an increase in the number of requests for evidence issued, funding being siphoned off for immigration enforcement activities, fraud investigations and the new interpretation of the public charge rule all slow down the processing of cases. Such critics believe that USCIS issues began long before the current COVID-19 crisis and they want any bailout to be conditional to greater transparency, accountability and efficiency on the part of USCIS.
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.
Even before this year, there had been a considerable increase in the USCIS timeline to process many application types. While USCIS case backlogs have long been an issue, backlogged cases have now ballooned to 5.7 million. For example, the average processing time for an I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, in 2016 was six months. By 2019, that average processing time had increase to 10.6 months. For employment based I-485 adjustment of status applications, average processing times went from 6.8 months in 2016 to 12.8 months in 2019. N-400, Application for Naturalization went from an average processing time of 5.6 months to an average of 9.9 months.
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.
Immigrants can use premium processing when available for faster processing. By paying an extra fee, beneficiaries can have their case processed in two weeks, though this is not available for all application types. It is also recommended that people seeking to renew their status submit their filing as early as possible to allow plenty of time for processing.