The impact of the looming federal budgets cuts appears to be trickling down to immigration enforcement.
On March 1, the country will undergo what's being called "sequestration": across-the-board budget cuts adding up to $1.2 trillion over 10 years. In response, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is already taking steps to reduce its spending.
Several hundred lower-priority immigration detainees have been released from facilities across the country over the past several days. They were either let go on their own recognizance or required to use a telephone check-in system or an ankle bracelet, according to Gillian Christensen, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE).
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"As fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE has reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget," Christensen said in a statement on Tuesday. "Over the last week, ICE has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention."
These detainees will still face immigration charges. But much like a person convicted of a minor crime, they will be free from detention until their scheduled court date.
An article in The New York Times referred to the move as "highly unusual." It's true that detainees are occasionally released by immigration authorities, but immigrant rights advocates interviewed by the Times said that a mass release over such a short span was unprecedented.
Janet Napolitano, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), went into detail about possible cuts at a press briefing on Monday, saying that 5,000 Border Patrol agents could be furloughed and that disaster relief funding could be reduced by $1 billion.
"You know, I have been in government and public service a long time -- 20 years, almost -- I have never seen anything like this. It will have to affect our core critical mission areas," Napolitano said Tuesday after a speech at the Brookings Institution.
We spoke with Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, about how potential sequester cuts might impact immigration enforcement. Here's how that could play out.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
The detainees released over the past few days were being held on the authority of ICE, which enforces the country's immigration laws. According to Meissner, the agency chose a good way to offset potential budget cuts.
The reason that people facing immigration charges are held in detention centers is so that they can eventually appear before an immigration judge and then be deported or released. Allowing low-priority detainees to return to their homes and await a court date is more cost efficient, Meissner said. "That's cash that you can trim more easily than with salaries of your own personnel."
Whether the agency will enact further cuts is unclear.
Border Patrol "is probably in a better position to absorb a cut like this because it is so heavily funded," Meissner said. The agency has doubled in size over the last seven years, with 21,370 agents on payroll in the 2012 fiscal year.
Of course, Border Patrol has also touted a drop in apprehensions along the border in recent years, something that experts say is at least in part because of stepped-up enforcement.
The immigration courts already face record backlogs of immigration cases -- 323,725 cases, according to some of the latest data -- and budget cuts will only make things worse.
"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 said. "It's a very direct cause-and-effect relationship."
The growth in the immigration backlog over recent years is formidable. As of March 2012, a record 305,556 cases were pending in immigration court, according to an MPI report. In 2007, the backlog was about 174,395 cases.
Still, it's commonly misunderstood that the backlog in immigration cases is solely because of overworked judges. Another part of the problem is that there are only a limited number of certain visas and other options for immigrants in removal proceedings.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
USCIS is the branch of the federal immigration system that deals with legal immigration, including things like visa processing and naturalization. The agency hasn't grown as fast as the immigration enforcement arms of the federal government, and that means possible budget cuts could be felt more strongly.
"They are serving the people who play by the rules, and those functions are going to be hard-hit because they have less [leeway] in their budget," Meissner said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
CBP deals with regulating trade and monitoring the border. The agency includes Border Patrol, but its operations go beyond that. One of the biggest places budget cuts could hurt CBP would be at the ports of entry, according to Meissner. That could mean longer lines for airline passengers when entering the U.S. and a slowdown of people and goods crossing at land borders with Mexico and Canada.
Trade between the U.S. and Mexico is a big deal. The exchange of goods and services between the two countries added up to $500 billion in 2011.
This story was updated on February 26, 2013, at 5:45pm.