US agency warns of long waits for immigrant visas, work permits

Facing severe budget pressures, US Citizenship and Immigration Services cuts operations to avoid furloughs of workers.

Judge officiates US citizenship
A US judge officiates a socially distanced US Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalisation ceremony by video; the federal agency gets its revenue from application fees which have dropped by 50 percent in the coronavirus pandemic [File: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

The United States agency responsible for granting immigrant visas and “green card” residency permits said on Tuesday that it would avoid a planned furlough of 13,000 employees in two weeks but warned of long wait times for applications.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), part of the US Department of Homeland Security, has seen a 50 percent drop in revenue from immigration applications because of President Donald Trump’s restriction of immigration to the US and the coronavirus.

In a statement, USCIS announced it was undertaking aggressive budget cuts that will allow it to continue to operate through the end of the US fiscal year on September 31.

“However, 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,” USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow said in the statement.

“A return to normal operating procedures requires congressional intervention to sustain the agency through fiscal year 2021,” Edlow said.

USCIS, part of the Department of Homeland Security, had warned earlier it would be forced to temporarily layoff large numbers of employees without USD $1.2bn in emergency funding from the US Congress.

US citizen candidate
A citizen candidate sits socially distanced and wearing a protective face mask, amid the outbreak of COVID-19, during a USCIS naturalisation ceremony in New York City, on July 22, 2020. [File: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

USCIS is in charge of issuing work permits, so-called “green cards”, and other visas that allow specialised workers like technicians, doctors and nurses to come to the US for jobs.

Leading Democrats wrote to the agency heads last week urging them not to furlough federal workers which would “undermine ongoing efforts and cause severe, possibly irreparable harm to USCIS”.

“As our nation struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic, the services that USCIS provides are critical and must be maintained,” Representatives Bennie Thomson and Kathleen Rice, who chair the agency’s oversight committees, wrote in an August 21 letter.

“Struggling businesses are relying on temporary workers, overburdened hospitals are depending on medical professionals, and USCIS is the essential component that makes this activity possible,” the legislators said.

The agency said naturalisation ceremonies for new US citizens would continue although contracted support for USCIS adjudicators would be reduced, resulting in longer processing times for pending applications and cases.

Source: Al Jazeera