Budget cuts will affect US immigration and visa system

During the early months of 2013, while Republicans and Democrats in Congress were negotiating ways to deal with the US budget deficit, some US commentators were wondering what would happen if they failed to reach an agreement. Now they have failed and, on March 1st, President Obama signed a Presidential Order cutting $85bn from the US federal budget in the next seven months.

The President described the cuts, known in the US as 'the sequester', as 'arbitrary and pointless'. He warned that they will cause a slowdown in the US economy and he laid the blame squarely on the heads of Republicans in Congress who refused to accede to any tax rises for the rich or to the closure of any tax loopholes to offset some of the cuts.

The Republicans, of course, blame the President. Whoever is to blame, the government will have to find savings and this will mean cuts in services. Most spending will be docked from military programmes but all government departments will need to find savings.

Visas and other applications will be delayed

And this will, of course, include the immigration system. Many federal employees will have to take 'furloughs' or unpaid leave, in order to save money and this is bound to lead to delays in the processing of paperwork. Thus delays should be expected in visa petitions and other applications. John Kerry, the new US Secretary of State wrote last month that the cuts would 'jeopardize the Department's efforts to provide secure, error-free, travel documents to those eligible to receive them, while denying them to those not eligible. Reduced funding would also undermine progress made in ensuring that visa requests are processed in a timely fashion'.

ICE, the Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement agency, has already freed hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention centres in several states in order to save money.

Immigration court backlog will grow

The US's immigration court system will lose $15m. There is already an average 550 day waiting time for immigration cases to be heard. This is only going to get worse with the sequester.

ABC news predicted that the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is responsible for the immigration courts, would not be able to hire any new judges and said that the case backlog would rise by 6% to 350,000. The EOIR backlog has already been rising steadily in the last year.

Cuts in border staff

Finally, the sequester is likely to cut the number of border patrol guards. There are currently some 20,000 such guards, almost all of them deployed along the Mexican border.

This could be a problem for President Obama's plan for comprehensive immigration reform. One of the elements of the plan is that there should be yet more border security. Some Republicans including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, have said that the border must be secured to their satisfaction before there can be any progress made in normalising the immigration status of the 11m illegal immigrants currently in the US.

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