The U.S.’s immigration system, already burdened by application processing backlogs and insufficient funding for immigration courts, could become even more unwieldy if the government must slash its budget on March 1. Sequestration – a package of across-the-board government spending cuts totaling $85 billion this year and $1.2 trillion over the next decade – likely will go into effect on Friday unless Congress and President Obama manage to reach a deal. Currently, there are no reports of ongoing negotiations to avert the automatic cuts, so when the cuts kick in, all aspects of the immigration system – from visas to deportations – would be impacted.
Because of the sequestration cuts, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on Monday already began releasing some people from immigration detention facilities as a cost-cutting measure. “In order to make the best use of our limited detention resources in the current fiscal climate and to manage our detention population under current congressionally mandated levels, ICE has directed field offices to review the detained population to ensure it is in line with available funding,” agency spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement. She added that the detainees released have been “placed on an appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release.” According to the American Civil Liberties Union, it costs $122 to $164 each day to detain a person, while alternative methods, like ankle monitors and parole, cost less than $14 a day. The Huffington Post reported that ICE has not dropped the cases against those who were released and would still deport them if ordered to do so by an immigration judge.
But sequestration also would slash $15 million from the nation’s immigration courts, which already have a massive backlog. There is an average wait time of 550 days to resolve an immigration case. That will only get longer if Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which runs immigration courts, has to find places to make cuts. As U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote to the Senate Appropriations Committee, “EOIR would be forced to cease all hiring of key critical positions for EOIR’s immigration courts, including Immigration Judges, likely increasing pending caseloads to well over 350,000 (an increase of 6 percent over September 2012 levels.” Additionally, EOIR would have to end contracts for interpreters, legal support, and IT staff.
The looming cuts would also slow down the legal immigration system. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explained in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee that budget cuts would limit the State Department’s work to “provide secure, error-free travel documents to those eligible to receive them, while denying them to those not eligible.” Additionally, Kerry wrote, “Reduced funding would also undermine progress made in ensuring that visa requests are processed in a timely fashion.” And if the visa requests are not processed, that would extend the “line” to enter the U.S. and make the years-long wait even longer for prospective immigrants.
Sequestration would also force the Department of Homeland Security to reduce the number of border patrol agents. When someone asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about sequestration after her speech at the Brookings Institute today, she buried her face in her hands and then said the automatic budget cuts are “the equivalent, in hours, of 5,000 border patrol agents.” It would mean less overtime and prevent them from hiring more port officers, she explained. “I have never seen anything like this,” Napolitano said. “It will have to affect our core, critical mission areas.”
Despite Napolitano’s concern, it seems likely that the areas that will be hardest hit in immigration are the very ones that need the most reform, making it even more difficult for those who are trying to follow the rules of a broken system to immigrate to the United States.