You may have heard on the news about the looming "sequestration" in the United States. What does this archaicly named term mean and why is it likely to impact those seeking US visas at American Embassies and Consulates?
What is sequestration?
"Sequestration" is the term used to describe the practice of imposing mandatory budget cuts affecting the federal budget when the government is faced with budget deficits in a particular fiscal year. The sequester is mandated by the Budget Control Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2011 after the debt limit was raised and Republicans demanded that budget cuts be written into the law. Although largely written in as a deterrent meant to put pressure on Congress to agree on deficit reduction plans, it has now come into effect because Democrats and Republicans have not been able to reach a compromise on how deficit reduction should be accomplished.
The sequester cuts federal funding across the board, affecting military operations, education, health care, and research, to name just a few. A limited number of federal programmes such as Medicaid and Social Security are exempt.
The magnitude of the budget cuts is staggering. Over the next nine years, $1.2 trillion (about £800 billion) will be cut from the federal budget, with about $85 billion (£532 million) worth of cuts being implemented during the remainder of 2013.
Why will the sequester affect visa processing at US Embassies?
The US Department of State, the federal agency in charge of US Embassies and Consulates around the world, is one of the federal agencies that will be hit by budget cuts. In its press briefing on 27 February 2013, a State Department representative indicated that, whilst it is impossible to know the exact impact of the budget cuts and how individual countries will be affected, "there's no doubt … that one of the areas that there'll be an impact on, obviously, is our ability provide consular services." The budget cuts will potentially affect the number of consular officers working at US embassies, which will in turn affect the speed with which visa applicants can be seen and their visas processed.
It is a shame that visa processing times are likely to increase given the remarkable improvements in waiting times recently achieved by American Embassies around the world. At the US Embassy in London, the current wait time for a non-immigrant visa interview is just one day, and the typical wait time for visa processing is three days. At the US Consulate in Belfast, a non-immigrant visa interview is usually available in 2 days and the visa is processed in another 2 days on average. This is the situation in most but not all categories, and barring administrative processing cases.
Other parts of the world, such as India, China and Brazil, are likely to feel the impact of the budget cuts to an even greater extent. In São Paulo, for instance, the wait time for a visa interview used to be an eye watering 140 days. The US State Department mobilised the hiring of a huge influx of consular officers for hot spots such as Brazil, thereby managing to reduce the wait times in São Paulo to an average of just two days. Visa processing capacity has also been increased in key locations resulting, in places such as China and Brazil, in a 40% increase in the number of visas processed in 2012.
If there is a silver living to these developments, it is the fact that the Department of State itself is very concerned about "major setbacks in … the herculean effort we've made to reduce wait time". Visitors to the United States aid the US economy when they holiday there, and the State Department estimates that for every 65 visitors going to the USA, one American job is created. Therefore, to the extent possible, the Department of State will try to minimise the adverse impacts.
The American Immigration Law Office will keep clients up to date as any changes to visa processing times take place.