Business & Economy

Vermont immigration agency workers facing furlough notices

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services complex in St. Albans. Photo by Sawyer Loftus/VTDigger

This story was updated at 6:55 p.m. to include information about Sen. Patrick Leahy’s effort to pass a bill that would provide emergency funding for the agency.

More than 1,500 Vermont employees of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are expected to receive notice of a potential furlough, due to the agency’s budgetary crisis. 

According to an agency spokesperson, on or before July 2 approximately 13,400 USCIS employees will receive notice that without a bailout from Congress, they will be furloughed as of Aug. 3. 

“Though we continue to have productive conversations with Congress, we want employees who may be furloughed to have sufficient time to prepare,” according to the spokesperson. “Further, we are legally required to provide employees with advance written notice at least 30 calendar days prior to the effective date of an expected furlough.” 

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 employs people primarily in St. Albans and Essex.

In Washington, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Senate Appropriations Committee vice chairman, has called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump to take up the issue and pass emergency funding, according to a statement issued Monday by Leahy’s office. 

In a letter sent to the White House June 23, Leahy said that despite repeated calls from Democrats for more financial relief, they requests have landed on deaf ears. 

“Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has publicly stated that he and the White House want to take a ‘pause’ before considering any further emergency legislation related to Covid-19, and has given no indication when that pause would end,” Leahy said. “This is irresponsible. Taking a ‘wait and see’ approach will only exacerbate the devastating effects of this pandemic, hurt the American people, and weaken our economy.” 

Leahy is slated to take the Senate floor Tuesday to speak further on the issue. 

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At a press conference Monday, Gov. Phil Scott said that although he’s tried to find out more since he first heard about the potential cuts, the local impact is still unknown. 

“What we understand, is there are going to be furloughs across the country. We don’t know what impact it will have here locally, but we expect that we will be impacted,” Scott said. “We’ve heard anecdotally, not officially but anecdotally, from some of those workers who received notice that they will be furloughed.” 

Additionally, Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said his department is working with USCIS to better understand the scope of the temporary layoffs. 

“So we are continuing to work with them at the state level, but we just don’t know what the impact is going to be,” said Harrington, who also spoke at the press conference in Montpelier. 

According to Harrington, USCIS employs upwards of 1,500 workers and contractors in Vermont who could be impacted by the cuts. 

The agency says financial troubles stem from a Covid-19 related 50%  decrease in fees and receipts that began in March and will likely continue through the end of the 2020 fiscal year, according to the spokesperson. 

USCIS relies on fees, not appropriated or taxpayer funds, to run the agency, so the drop in applications and receipts has resulted in a drop in revenue, according to the spokesperson. 

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.

In a statement released June 25, Deputy Director Joseph Edlow of the agency said that due to Covid-19, the agency’s finances have been dealt a “crippling” blow. 

“The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are long-reaching and pervasive, leaving few unscathed in its wake. USCIS is still experiencing those very effects, which began with an alarming drop in applications at the end of March,” Edlow said. “Forecasts predict a crippling budget shortfall that requires assistance from Congress to allow USCIS to maintain current operations.” 

USCIS alerted Congress May 15 to the budgetary shortfall, and is asking for $1.2 billion worth of emergency funds to continue operations. 

USCIS Vermont Service Center in St. Albans. Photo by Sawyer Loftus/VTDigger

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Sawyer Loftus

About Sawyer

Sawyer Loftus will be a senior this fall at the University of Vermont, where he is pursuing a degree in history with a minor in public communication. He has been involved with the Vermont Cynic, UVM’s independent student newspaper, since his freshman year. This past year, he was news and sports editor, and will become editor-in-chief in August. Sawyer grew up in Colchester and previously interned at Vermont Public Radio, where he worked on "All Things Considered." He also worked at the Burlington Free Press, where he covered a variety of topics with words and multimedia.
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