Thousands of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees across the country, including some based in Vermont, may be furloughed next month due to a shortfall in the federal agency’s budget.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a “dramatic” decrease in revenue the agency relies on, generated by applications and petitions related to citizenship, according to a USCIS spokesperson. In response, 13,400 USCIS employees nationwide may be furloughed as a cost-saving measure.
Vermont is home to one of five USCIS service centers that are responsible for processing millions of citizenship applications, according to a 2017 report to Congress. The agency employees people primarily in St. Albans and Essex.
During the 2016 fiscal year of the five service centers, Vermont’s had both the highest allowed employee spots of 1,021 and the highest number of working staff of 959 employees.
Gabriel Pedreira, a regional organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents USCIS employees said the situation for Vermont is particularly dire.
“Vermont does share a border with Canada, so a lot of U.S. Customs and Immigration Services employees do work in states that share a border with Mexico or Canada,” he said. “So it’s not a positive thing.”
In his daily press briefing, Gov. Phil Scott said Friday his administration confirmed with Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office that there could be furloughs, and he had heard Vermonters may be among those impacted, but he didn’t have specifics.
“I don’t know the magnitude, I don’t know the details,” Scott said Friday morning.
On May 15, USCIS alerted Congress to a budgetary shortfall and asked for $1.2 billion over two years to make sure operations could continue.
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According to the USCIS spokesperson, the shortfall is due to a projected drop of 61% in citizenship applications and petitions through the end of the 2020 fiscal year. The agency is largely funded by the fees associated with applications and petitions, so without a $1.2 billion boost from Congress, USCIS will completely exhaust its funds by the end of the summer.
Cross-border travel into the United States has slowed drastically during the Covid-19 crisis, as travel restrictions have been imposed — including the partial closure of the U.S.-Canada border.
David Carle, a spokesperson for Leahy, said the senator’s office has received “numerous inquiries” from Vermont residents and has brought the concerns to USCIS leadership.
Leahy, vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is working on addressing the funding shortage in the next Covid-19 relief bill, according to Carle. But he shifted the blame to the Trump administration for the shortfall in a statement.
“The threat of furlough is the result of the Administration’s failure to ask, as required by law, for the needed Appropriations to make up for the reduced fees that traditionally support USCIS operations,” Carle said.
In correspondence with Vermonters, Leahy said Republican congressional leadership continues to “resist” action that would allow USCIS to continue operating business as usual.
“I share these concerns about what all this means for USCIS employees in Vermont, in particular. This is an uncertain time for all of us Vermonters, and for all Americans,” the senator wrote. “Mitigating the spread and fallout of the virus requires strong leadership from our government at every level.”
Pedreira said in a time of economic decline in the United States, the loss of pay for USCIS employees affects more than just those workers — it affects the entire economy.
“These are good-paying jobs, these are federal employees with good health insurance, good salaries and good retirement benefits. This is not like losing a low wage job,” Pedreira said. “So these are employees who because they make a good salary contribute to the local economy.”
The potential cuts also come as Congress weighs whether to continue the weekly $600 federal benefit for people receiving unemployment insurance, which began as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act stimulus package.
“It’s really kind of a perfect storm in some ways because if these furloughs do go into effect they’re going to go into effect around July 20,” Pedreira said. “To go from, let’s say, a good salary to 400-some dollars a week and potentially losing health insurance is not a good thing.”
Any Vermonters impacted by USCIS furloughs can apply for unemployment insurance.
If the federal government doesn’t bail USCIS out, employees impacted by furloughs will be notified either before or on July 2 and their furlough will go into effect Aug. 3.
USCIS declined to provide a specific count of the number of employees in Vermont, but according to the fiscal year 2019 review, it was projected that USCIS would increase service center employment by 95% compared to the 2016/2017 fiscal year positions. That means during the 2019/2020 fiscal year there would be 5,579 employees split across the five service centers, according to the report.
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