Sequestration to Test Immigrants’ Patience

Immigrant supporters, including non-profit organization IRATE & First Friends, rallied at Liberty State Park in February against holding immigrants in detention centers. (Photo by Noel Pangilinan/ImmigraNation)

ImmigraNation‘s Noel Pangilinan looks at how the sequestration’s spending cuts impact agencies and services related to immigrants.

The forced cuts already led to the welcomed release of detainees from immigration facilities but will also likely mean increased delays at ports of entry, both at airports and border crossings, as well as longer waits for visas and immigration cases. Already lengthy waiting lists and backlogs will only stretch longer and worsen delays in processing.

ICE released hundreds of immigrants from detention centers on February 26, citing the move as a preparation for the sequestration budget cuts that went officially into effect on March 1.

The U.S. spends $2 billion annually to maintain detention facilities for immigrants, even those who do not pose any risk. Each detainee costs from $122 to $164 per person per day; the American Civil Liberties Union said alternative methods cost from 30 cents to $14.

Although critics of immigration detention lauded the release of detainees, they were quick to point out that the releases were a validation of their criticism that detaining immigrants is impractical.

“Since ICE is stating that those have been and will be released in an effort to cut costs pose no threat to the community, it has, in effect admitted that it has been wasting taxpayer dollars by needlessly incarcerating people,” Lorna Henkel, president of the advocacy group IRATE & First Friends, said in a statement.

The State Department, which processes tourist and work visa applications, saw $850 million in cuts. Sequestration will further exacerbate the already extensive waiting lists for the visas, which already number in the six and seven digits.

If visas are not processed “in a timely fashion,” the obvious consequence would be a longer waiting time for visas and green cards. As of November last year, there were 4.3 million people on the wait list for family-based visas and 113,058 waiting for employment-based visas. In pre-sequester USA, the waiting time for a green card in some countries such as the Philippines can take as long as 24 years.

The Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) lost $754 million from budget cuts, one of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies with the largest amounts in budget slashes. According to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, CPB depends on personnel, which in turn slows down processing at border control. “So when we add it up, it is the equivalent in hours of 5,000 Border Patrol agents. It means less overtime and ability to hire port officers,” she said. The effect? Everything becomes “longer.”

As a result, it would take longer now to enter the U.S. legally. Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, now USCIS) and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), said the budget slashes mean reduced manpower, which translates into longer lines for airline passengers entering the U.S. and longer wait times for people and goods crossing at land borders with Mexico and Canada.

Then there’s the 323,725 pending cases in immigration courts across the country. Sequestration would cut over $15 million from the budget for the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), said Attorney General Eric Holder. EOIR, which administers immigration court cases, would not be able to hire, for example, interpreters, support staff, as well as immigration judges “likely increasing pending caseloads to well over 350,000, an increase of 6 percent over September 2012 levels,” said the attorney general.

EOIR holds immigration court hearings that decide whether individuals charged with violating the U.S. immigration law are deported or granted permission to stay in the country.

“If you have judges and court clerks who have to take a day’s furlough once a week, then that’s 20 percent [cut in productivity],” Meissner of MPI said.

At the moment, an average immigration court case takes 550 days before a decision is handed down. With reduced manpower and tighter budget, the waiting time has just grown longer.

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