On March 1, 2013, the sequester took effect. Though it has been well over a month since the budget cuts began, Congress has not resolved the budgetary issues that led to the abrupt cuts to a wide range of federal programs. These cuts, which have already caused losses of jobs and services, will potentially affect immigration, not only through the agencies that process applications and petitions, but also by delaying airlines and border checkpoints. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano expressed concern to the Senate Appropriations Committee regarding the impact of the sequester on national security, and the White House warned of travel delays and other negative effects.
What is Sequestration?
The sequester is part of the Budget Control Act passed by Congress and signed by the President during one of many feuds over the federal budget in August 2011. It consists of automatic spending cuts scheduled to begin at 11:59 p.m. on March 1, unless Congress and the President could reach a different agreement before then. It was intended to be something sufficiently harsh, given the extent and speed of the spending cuts, to give everyone involved an incentive to find a compromise. That did not happen, and the sequester is now in effect.
The cuts to the federal budget total $1.2 trillion, spread out over a nine-year period, including $550 billion in cuts to defense spending. The cuts taking effect in 2013 total $85 billion. Certain areas are exempted from cuts, including military personnel and the war in Afghanistan, as well as social programs like Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ benefits and Pell grants. Many federal agencies will experience cuts to their budgets, and many are still struggling to allocate dwindling resources.
The White House, Secretary Napolitano, and others warned of delays in travel, due to cuts in the budgets for air traffic control and airport security. Cuts to the aviation budget could mean fewer air traffic controllers, and even the closure of control towers and airports. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with fewer resources, could cause longer waits at airports for security checks. Finally, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) could take longer to approve international arrivals at airports and ports. The impact of the sequester was not immediately felt, but has now come to fruition as the Federal Aviation Administration has put some of its employees on furlough. The long-term impact remains to be seen.
Delays in Processing of Immigration Petitions
Most immigration application processing is funded by application fees. Secretary Napolitano did not directly address U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in her statement to the Senate committee, but it may also feel the effects of the sequester. USCIS depends on other federal agencies to do its job, including the Department of State for many visa petitions and the Department of Labor for labor certifications. It also works with the other Homeland Security agencies, CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), both of which face significant cutbacks.
Employment Authorization and Worksite Enforcement
The sequester may not affect processing of employment authorizations by USCIS, but investigations and enforcement of employer compliance by ICE will almost certainly decrease. Employers should remember that the actual employment laws remain in place, and that the government could restore ICE’s budget at any moment.
Other areas of security affected by the sequester could impact the immigration system, either by slowing down application processing or by making travel to the U.S. more difficult. This could include changes to border security and the U.S. Border Patrol, or reductions in federal cybersecurity protections,
The totality of the sequestration effects on immigration-related services have not yet been unveiled. However, we are beginning to feel the pinch as agencies enact furloughs and other cuts. Our concern is, if the sequester is a result of true bipartisanship, what is to come of future negotiations? First and foremost, will our representatives be able to agree to fair solutions to the multiplicity of immigration problems?
More Blog Posts:
USCIS Prepares to Receive H-1B Petitions for Fiscal Year 2014, Expects to Run Out in Early April, ImmigRantings, March 22, 2013
USCIS Releases First Volume of Planned Comprehensive Policy Manual, ImmigRantings, February 21, 2013
Immigrants Struggle After Hurricane Sandy, ImmigRantings, February 15, 2013
Photo credit: Alvimann from morguefile.com.