David Martin: I think the places where they'll be felt earliest and most graphically will be at the ports of entry. It will mean lots longer lines as people are coming into the country, and that's a sensitive point for [international] business leaders.
For border patrol, it will have an impact but it will be less immediately felt and noticed. It will set back some of the headway we've made in terms of reducing attempts to come into the U.S. The lower flow [of border-crossers] has had a huge impact. And it's made it more possible to think of comprehensive immigration reform.
Could you talk a little more about why sequestration's impact on the ports of entry makes a difference?
It will have an impact on international business and deals that are made. If they have bad experiences over a period of time — they can deal with it for a couple of weeks, but it will make certain business transactions harder to carry out. People will start avoiding traveling to ports with lengthy periods of wait time, and the business community in that location is going to feel it — they will feel it pretty early.
And in terms of the border, do you think that sequestration will actually compromise our national security?
People throw a lot of things together in the name of border security — acting on tips on intelligence, information about terrorist threats, whether they have a very checkered background on the way to the border. That's going to be prioritized, so it won't get to the point that that will be compromised.
But there may be parts of the Southwest border, with not quite as ample staffing, that may not be quite as effective. At some point, smuggling organizations will be trying to test that and looking for soft spots.
Doris Meissner was the former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) between 1993 and 2000 under the Clinton administration. She is currently a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. We spoke Tuesday about the impact of the sequester.
Suzy Khimm: How would you handle sequestration if you were in charge of Homeland Security and the other agencies that deal with immigration?
Doris Meissner: Your primary responsibility is public safety. And so no matter what, you have to be sure to do — to the extent that you can possibly do it under the sequestration — in the case of ICE is to be sure detention facilities are secured, and that people under its jurisdiction are being treated properly. Where the border is concerned, there are enough people distributed in places where there are vulnerabilities so that bad people are continuing to be deterred.
The difficulty is that while that has to come first, it also means that many of the processes that people use to "play by the rules" are the ones that are going to be shortchanged and harmed. That means that in terms of getting through ports of entry for trade and other commercial and personal purposes, the last thing they need is another 8 percent budget cut. Families trying to apply for naturalization, businesses trying to get permission for H1-B visas. I don't have much doubt that the public safety responsibilities can be met. The real collateral damage is for those who play by the rules.
Do you think that sequestration's discretionary cuts are something that these agencies could live with?
The cuts are very hard for immigration agencies, which are heavily people. They aren't grant programs given to states; this late in the year, you have almost entirely salary costs . So a 10 percent cut on budgets where 90 percent of budget is salaries is very difficult. [The sequester is an 8.2 percent across-the-board cut, though the impact on individual departments and programs varies.]
And that's not even going to the macroeconomic effects of this. Just in terms of border patrol, because the budget is as large as it is, there is more room to absorb cuts than [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services]. At a micro level, these communities along the border — El Paso, smaller places — the immigration payroll is a huge swath of their local economy.
Some Senate Republicans are proposing that we should just give the White House greater discretion to administer the cuts — the top-line dollar amount would be the same, but the cuts wouldn't have to be distributed across the board. If it were up to you, how would you propose making cuts that used a scalpel instead of a meat ax?
The funding over past years has been heavily toward border security and far less toward things like employer enforcement. Some of that would require [new] legislation. But if you were designing this system to focus on key points of intervention, you would have more funding toward more areas of enforcement, like employers that don't get the kind of emphasis now.