Welch to cosponsor bill to avert USCIS furloughs in Vermont

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., at a press conference Thursday, July 16, 2020 in Rutland. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch will cosponsor a bipartisan measure designed to bail out a federal immigration agency that is poised to furlough over 13,000 employees across the country, including more than a thousand Vermonters.

The legislation, introduced by Reps. Jeffrey Fortenberry, R-Neb., and Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., would give U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services the $1.2 billion the agency needs to avert the furloughs, set to begin next month. 

More than 1,100 USCIS employees in Vermont received furlough notices earlier this month. Welch, D-Vt., said that there is “a disaster looming.”

“It’s really urgent that we act quickly,” Welch said. “A lot of these folks have been working hard for years, and if they get furloughed, and they lose their income, they lose their livelihood, it will be devastating for them and their families. But it’ll also be a huge blow to Vermont’s economy, particularly up in Chittenden, Franklin County.” 

The agency alerted Congress May 15 of the budgetary shortfall, caused by the lack of fees associated with citizenship and visa applications since measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 sharply curtailed global travel. If emergency funding was not provided, agency officials warned, more than 13,000 employees nationwide — including in Vermont — would be furloughed. 

Without the funding, USCIS employees that received a furlough notice would be without pay for 30 to 90 days starting Aug. 3. 

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. In Vermont, the agency employs people primarily in St. Albans and Essex.

“They’re losing their job, potentially, unless we provide replacement funding to get us through this Covid period when we can expect that those revenue-based visa fees will be reinstated,” Welch said.

Because the agency is primarily fee driven, an agency spokesperson said a decline in applications due to Covid-19 has caused a dramatic drop in revenue. 

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Cleaver said in a July 9 press release that as millions across the U.S. feel the economic impacts of Covid-19 it is imperative Congress work to continue funding the agency that handles immigration applications.

“Although I want to see policy changes made at USCIS, during the compounding public health and economic crises, preserving jobs and processing applications for workers and companies that have been waiting for months must be the first step,” he said. 

The bill would allocate funds specifically from the U.S. Treasury, which USCIS would pay back over time, according to the legislation. 

In the Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has repeatedly called for emergency funding for the agency. Regarding this legislation, David Carle, Leahy’s spokesperson, said the move in the House is a step in the right direction. 

“This is the latest indication that support is building in Congress to fix this problem,” Carle said in an emailed statement. “As vice-chair of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Leahy is looking to solve these issues as soon as possible, and in the weeks ahead, in the next emergency appropriations bill.”

Previously, Leahy has spoken about the issue on the Senate floor, where he said a source of the agency’s financial situation is related to President Donald Trump’s broader stance on immigration.

“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,” Leahy said on the floor of the Senate July 1. “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.” 

A USCIS spokesperson said the agency cannot specifically comment on the legislation. 

Emma Cotton contributed reporting.

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