US immigration services set to furlough two-thirds of its workers after coronavirus stimulus talks fail

WASHINGTON – The federal agency tasked with offering citizenship, green cards and visas to immigrants is planning to furlough about two-thirds of its workers at the end of the month after Congress failed to reach a deal on a coronavirus stimulus package.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services notified about 13,400 of its 20,000 employees that they would be furloughed Aug. 30 because of budget shortfalls, which the agency hoped Congress would fill in its next relief package before negotiations stalled last week.

"In the past few months, USCIS has taken action to avert a fiscal crisis, including limiting spending to salary and mission-critical activities," an agency spokesperson said. "Without congressional intervention, USCIS will have to take drastic actions to keep the agency solvent."

The agency had asked Congress for $1.2 billion, and the money had been expected to come through its next coroanvirus relief package. But after about two weeks of negotiations, talks dissolved as Democrats and the White House blamed each other for the stalemate.

In the end, the president signed four executive orders trying to fill the gap on some stimulus programs, though they did not deal with immigration services. Questions remain over whether the orders will ultimately be successful in carrying out Trump's aims.

More: The top 3 unanswered questions about Trump's executive orders on coronavirus relief

'We have to reach an agreement': Dems, White House still open to deal on COVID-19 relief despite Trump's orders

The agency, which is under the Department of Homeland Security, is funded by money it makes from fees. But the number of petitions seeking entry into the U.S have decreased over the past three years under Trump, whose hard line on immigration has been a central theme of his presidency. The president and his administration has made the process more rigorous for those seeking entry to the U.S.

As a result of the pandemic, the president had set new orders that barred entry into the U.S. by foreigners, including a halt on green cards. The agency said the pandemic also led to a dramatic decline in revenue. To make it up, the agency has weighed fee increases for applications, tabs that would be picked up by immigrants seeking entry.

CNN notes the number of petitions from immigrants between fiscal years 2017 and 2019 decreased by 900,000, and those decreases were largely the result of changes from the administration.

Congressional Democrats have railed against the agency's plans to furlough workers, with some saying any additional money allotted for USCIS should have strings attached, a proposal that would almost certainly lead to a partisan debate.

A group of 15 Democratic senators wrote to Senate leaders in mid-July asking that certain restrictions be placed on the agency if more money is given. Those include: prohibiting the agency from using such funds for enforcement against immigrants and requiring the agency to offer remote naturalization ceremonies amid the pandemic.

"We must act now to protect USCIS public servants, who have already begun to receive furlough notices, and are facing the reality of unemployment in a time of economic insecurity caused by the global pandemic," the letter reads. "It is important for their livelihood, but also for the livelihood of the communities they serve."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 stimulus deal: US immigration services plans furloughs