Statement On Impending Furloughs At The United States Citizenship And Immigration Services

. . . . Senate Floor

Yesterday I came before this Chamber and again made the case for why Congress needs to begin negotiations on another COVID-19 emergency supplemental bill now.  The needs are real and they are immediate.  In fact, these negotiations should have begun six weeks ago, after the House passed the HEROES Act.

Today I want to talk about just one of those urgent needs, funding for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).  USCIS plays an important role in our nation’s immigration system, processing requests for immigration benefits, American citizenship, and screening asylum seekers.  The agency is staffed by more than 19,000 dedicated men and women across the country, including roughly 1,700 in my home state of Vermont. 

Last Friday, furlough notices were sent out to 13,350 of the 19,000 USCIS employees, effective August 3rd – four short weeks from now.  In Vermont, 1,111 men and women received this notice.  This is over 65 percent of the USCIS workforce in Vermont.  Men and women who do important work for the nation, and have continued to do that work even during the COVID-19 pandemic, have just been told that after August 3rd, they can no longer do their job, and they will no longer receive a paycheck.  These are 13,350 new and urgent reasons why the Senate must act on our nation’s real and immediate needs, and the Senate Majority must make that possible right now.

I have been ringing the alarm bells for more than a month on this issue.  Due to declining revenue and immigration-related application fees coming into USCIS, the agency is facing a budget shortfall of $1.2 billion dollars.  The furlough notices sent out last week are the result of this shortfall.  USCIS simply cannot pay employees with revenue they do not have. 

This shortfall is not entirely due to COVID-19.  The agency has not lived within its budget for the last three years, and the Trump Administration’s mismanagement and extreme immigration policies have only worsened this situation.  As part of the President’s efforts to erase our identity as a nation of immigrants, he has not just tried to shut our nation’s doors to asylum seekers and refugees; he has attempted to restrict almost all immigration to this country.  He’s created obstacles for immigrant workers, created a “wealth test” for immigrants, and even exploited the current public health emergency to impose additional immigration restrictions that have nothing to do with public health.  Because USCIS has not able to issue visas and process other immigration benefits as a result of President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, revenue has fallen. 

No matter the cause, however, this budget shortfall is real, and we have to address it. 

Furloughs would not only disrupt the processing of immigration benefits and American citizenship and other critical services provided by USCIS, but will cause unnecessary hardship on thousands of federal employees and federal contractors, and come at a time when our nation is already dealing with record job losses.  The loss of these valuable jobs will also cause hardship to the communities where these federal workers live and work, communities already struggling with the pandemic.

We must craft a fair and responsible solution to this problem.  This will require emergency appropriations and accompanying legislation to ensure transparency and accountability.  Time is of the essence.     

Unfortunately, despite numerous calls from myself and Democratic leadership in the Senate, the White House and the Republican Majority have refused to move forward on a fourth COVID-19 emergency appropriations bill where we could address this and other critical issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic.  We should not wait any longer.  We must not wait any longer. 

I call on Majority Leader McConnell to begin bipartisan negotiations on a COVID-19 emergency relief bill now, so that we can solve this problem before furloughs are necessary.  The Senate is about to recess for two weeks, but that does not mean our work stops.  With millions of people working from home due to coronavirus, including in the U.S. Senate, we have shown that we can do our job from wherever we are located.   

We can and should begin bipartisan, bicameral negotiations over the next two weeks so that when the Senate is back in session we have legislation to consider and debate, and we can enact a bill into law expeditiously.  The American people deserve no less.  The dedicated men and women at USCIS deserve no less. 

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