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US budget crisis impacts on immigration

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On Friday 1st March 2013, President Obama ordered swingeing cuts in US public spending after Congress failed yet again to agree a deal on public spending. The President's order will cut $85bn from the federal budget in the next seven months. The cuts have already hit the US's policing of immigration and further disruption is likely.

On Friday, the President said that he had had no choice but to sign the order. He said the cuts were 'dumb and arbitrary' and blamed Republicans in the House of Representatives who had refused to reach any compromise agreement with the President's Democrats that would have allowed some of the cuts to be offset by tax rises and the closure of tax loopholes for the rich.

Much of the reduction in spending will be borne by the US Military but most areas of federal spending will have to be reduced. Democrats predict that there will be disruption in education and air travel, and a slowdown in the economy. Federal agencies like US Citizenship and immigration (USCIS) will also probably suffer budget cuts and many staff may have to take unpaid leave.

Immigrants being released from detention

In the area of immigration, it seems that some illegal immigrants are already being released from detention in order to save money according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

ICE has been releasing hundreds of immigrant detainees from detention centres around the country. They have been released on 'supervised release' in order to save money. The deportation cases against them will continue in the US courts. Some are being ordered to wear electronic tags.

Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said 'it's abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration…By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives'.

Decision 'may prevent Republican cooperation on reform'

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said that the decision to release immigrants from centres might prevent bipartisan cooperation on comprehensive immigration reform because it showed that the president 'has no commitment to enforcing the law and cannot be trusted to deliver on any future promises of enforcement'.

A spokeswoman for ICE said that those released had been 'non-criminals and other low-risk offenders who do not have serious criminal histories'. ICE staff say that there are no plans to release more detainees at present.

US immigration workers say that the scale of the release programme has been unprecedented. There have been releases in New York and New Jersey, Georgia and Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Arizona. It has been estimated by the National Immigration Forum that it costs about $150 a day to keep immigrants in detention whereas it costs a fraction of this amount to monitor them in the community but it is likely that some of them at least will disappear before their cases are decided.

The US budget crisis arises because the country's national debt is rising. It has continued to rise under both Democrats and Republicans for the last ten years. Previous Congresses agreed to raise the national debt but made the agreements temporary so that Congress will have to return to address the issue from time to time. The latest deadline came on Friday 1st March.

No cooperation in Washington

Matters are made worse by the fact that Republicans and Democrats now agree about almost nothing in Washington. In recent years, particularly since the rise of the Tea Party, a right-wing pressure group that is driving the Republican Party further to the right, there has been almost complete inertia in Washington as Republicans refuse to vote for bills proposed by Democrats and vice versa.

There have been talks this year between the two parties to try to reach an agreement and avert the cuts. The Democrats said that they would agree to some cuts but said that they wanted to see tax rises and the closure of tax loopholes for the rich as well. Right wing Republicans refused to agree to any tax rises. On Friday, as the deadline came, the President said he had no choice and signed the order for the cuts.

Both parties now hope that the US electorate will blame their opponents for the mess and will vote accordingly in the next elections. Early indications are that more US voters are blaming Republicans for the current crisis but the President's approval rating has fallen too.

So, if you are planning on applying for a US visa, it would be as well to apply early. Delays will not be a surprise.

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