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U.S. agency that grants citizenship, visas plans to furlough two-thirds of staff in August

The USCIS relies on fees from applicants, and the Trump administration has shut down many visa applications during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sarphi Lay, left, and Porket Htoo stand for the "oath of allegiance" during a U.S. naturalization ceremony in Minneapolis on May 27, 2020.Elizabeth Flores / Star Tribune via AP

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is responsible for approving citizenship, work visas and other benefits for legal immigrants, has begun notifying 13,400 of its 20,000 employees that they will be furloughed beginning Aug. 3 unless Congress approves more funding, a spokesperson for the agency told NBC News.

The agency runs largely on fees paid by applicants, which have been down by 50 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic and are estimated to be down by over 60 percent by the end of the fiscal year, the spokesperson said.

"This dramatic drop in revenue has made it impossible for our agency to operate at full capacity. Without additional funding from Congress before August 3, USCIS has no choice but to administratively furlough a substantial portion of our workforce," the statement said.

Beginning in April, the Trump administration postponed asylum hearings for immigrants and froze the issuance of a broad range of visas, citing the need to protect American jobs. President Donald Trump signed an executive order Monday extending and expanding his original proclamation through Dec. 31.

But there are other categories of visa applicants, including health care workers responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, and food processing workers, who are still allowed into the United States and whose applications may be slowed by the reduction in staff.

Would-be citizens have already had their naturalization ceremonies delayed and face long backlogs, according to recent reports.

Without the help of Congress, the agency's solvency could be in question, two USCIS officials said. During the pandemic, the agency has continued to process some applications that did not require in-person interviews, but a furlough could end even that work, one of the officials said.