By DANIEL C. VOCK, Kansas Reflector
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress from the Kansas City region scored a victory last month when a federal immigration agency backed off plans that would have led to thousands of layoffs of government employees in the metro area.
But their relief was short lived, as the agency now intends to furlough 800 of its local private contractors instead — a move expected to set off immigration backlogs and processing delays throughout the nation.
The Kansas City furloughs are the latest result of budget shortfalls at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which earlier this summer threatened to furlough two-thirds of all its workers across the country, raising the specter of a severely damaged immigration system and outraging lawmakers.
The news that Kansas City still could sustain an 800-job hit has produced fresh objections from bipartisan members of Congress from both Missouri and Kansas, who wrote the agency saying “the economic impact of such a reduction will be felt for years to come.”
But the job cuts also more broadly could further delay the ability of USCIS to process green cards, work authorizations and other immigration-related documents nationwide.
Those backlogs, immigration advocates say, could slow any economic recovery, if companies in fields like technology and health care cannot hire the workers they need quickly.
The 800 people who are being furloughed work for a contractor at the National Benefit Center in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. USCIS uses the processing center to collect information, conduct background checks and prepare a variety of applications for local field offices.
But the agency says demand for immigration paperwork has dropped dramatically this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented many people from traveling and the Trump administration has raised more procedural obstacles to legal immigration.
That has caused a financial crisis for USCIS, because 96% of its revenue comes from application fees — not general tax revenues.
“USCIS has seen a 50% drop in receipts and incoming fees starting in March and estimates that application and petition receipts will stay well below plan through the end of (September). This dramatic drop in revenue has made it impossible for our agency to operate at full capacity,” a USCIS spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Threats of mass layoffs
The immigration agency has been threatening to issue mass layoffs since late spring and, until recently, said it would have to send 13,000 of its 20,000 employees home at the end of August.
A week before the cutbacks were set to take place, though, USCIS deputy director for policy Joseph Edlow announced the agency would avoid such widespread furloughs.
Members of Congress from the Kansas City area, particularly Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat, worked across party lines to avoid the threatened furloughs, which would have hit the bi-state area hard. USCIS employs 3,100 people in the region.
The U.S. House unanimously passed legislation authored by Cleaver in late August that would have helped the agency halt the furloughs by immediately increasing the agency’s revenue from so-called premium processing, or special faster services. The agency announced its own plan to fend off furloughs before the Senate could take up the measure.
To cancel the furloughs, though, Edlow said the agency had to make other cuts in the short term. To get things back on track for the long term, USCIS wants Congress to provide $1.2 billion in emergency funding.
“Averting this furlough comes at a severe operational cost that will increase backlogs and wait times across the board, with no guarantee we can avoid future furloughs. A return to normal operating procedures requires congressional intervention to sustain the agency through fiscal year 2021,” which ends in September 2021, Edlow said.
One of the ways USCIS is saving money is by reducing the number of contract employees it uses in the Kansas City area. Before the pandemic, the agency used 1,300 workers from contracting business Pacific Architects and Engineers to help process applications. Now it will use just 500. The move is expected to save $9 million through the end of November.
The agency expects the cutbacks will increase backlogs and processing delays throughout the country. They also come at a time when the agency’s 86 field offices have scaled back their operations. The field offices were closed from March until July because of the pandemic.
Now that they’re open again, they are still conducting half as many interviews as they were before the March closures for health reasons.
The slowdown at the field offices, though, means that fewer cases need to be prepared for them. Cutting the size of the contract at the National Benefit Center will better meet the current workload, a USCIS spokesperson said.
Kansas City delegation
Those moves have not gone over well with the Kansas City area’s congressional delegation.
“The jobs at the National Benefit Center support the livelihoods of many Kansas families and allow legal immigration applications to be processed without interruption,” said Rep. Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat. “I am very disappointed that the USCIS would end these jobs without working with Congress on possible solutions.”
Davids was one of several area lawmakers to criticize USCIS for the furlough of contract employees in a letter last week.
Davids, Blunt and Cleaver were joined by Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts of Kansas and Republican Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri in signing the letter.
They asked for a briefing from the agency, which USCIS held on Friday.
Diane Rish, the associate director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the delays USCIS is predicting as a result of furloughing the private contractors will only make things worse for a system that has been experiencing longer and longer delays in processing key immigration documents.
The Trump administration has repeatedly slowed down those processes, she said.
One of the most significant changes came in the fall of 2017, just a few months after the president took office. That’s when USCIS started requiring in-person interviews for applicants seeking work permits, along with several other categories of potential immigrants.
Trump administration officials acknowledged at the time that the new steps would increase processing times, but said they were necessary to prevent fraud.
Now that USCIS says its capacity to handle in-person interviews is reduced, Rish said, the agency could simply rescind the interview requirement.
“The administration is saying they’re enforcing a legal immigration system,” she said, “(but) people in line who are trying to comply with the law are being thrown into a system that is now taking longer and longer, making it almost impossible to comply with the law.”
Blaming the pandemic
Rish also questioned USCIS’ claim that its budget troubles are related to the slowdown in cases brought on by the coronavirus.
The agency proposed raising several fees — some by as much as 80% — last November, citing budget concerns. Recently, USCIS finalized those fee hikes, which are now set to take effect in October.
Immigration lawyers did see a dip in cases when the coronavirus pandemic first struck the United States in March and April, but the number of cases has returned to “similar levels” to pre-pandemic levels since then, Rish said. USCIS caseloads usually climb right before fee hikes, so there will likely be even more applications filed in the coming weeks, she added.
USCIS officials said the higher fees would not be enough to cover the drop in revenue it faced this year.
In fact, USCIS has to periodically revise its fees to keep up with its expenses. The fee hikes scheduled to take effect next month will amount to a weighted average increase of 20%, compared to 21% increases the last time the agency changed its fees in December 2016.
“USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures and make adjustments based on that analysis. These overdue adjustments in fees are necessary to efficiently and fairly administer our nation’s lawful immigration system, secure the homeland and protect Americans,” Edlow, the agency’s deputy director, said in a statement.
With the rising number of applications and fewer people to process them, Rish predicted that the effects of the furloughs in the Kansas City area would be far-reaching.
“These are applications that are filed from all over the country,” she said, “so all states and all cities are going to feel the impacts of these furloughs.”
Daniel C. Vock is a correspondent for the States Newsroom Washington, D.C., bureau.