WASHINGTON — The U.S. border might become harder to protect should lawmakers fail to avert the so-called fiscal cliff at the end of the year.
Among the many agencies that would be affected by the automatic spending cuts scheduled for early January are those that guard the borders with Mexico and Canada, inspect ports of entry and monitor airport security. Officials and policy analysts have warned that drug smugglers and human traffickers might be able to exploit a weaker border as patrol agents would be fired by the thousands and tens of millions of dollars for the border fence would be cut.
The $1.2 trillion in spending reductions also would mean fewer customs agents to operate X-ray machines and fewer security guards at airports, leading to longer waits at checkpoints, according to a congressional analysis of the prospective cuts.
That’s only part of the picture being painted by federal officials, lawmakers and policy wonks if Congress and President Barack Obama can’t reach a compromise in the next four weeks on the appropriate amount of tax increases and spending cuts to reduce federal budget deficits.
Others argue that reductions of any size would be paltry compared with the unprecedented growth that Customs and Border Protection has experienced over the past two decades. Congressional appropriations for the border patrol have increased 750 percent since 1989, according to the Congressional Research Service, a public-policy research arm for Congress.
Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is deporting nearly 400,000 people a year and the size of the illegal immigrant population has remained roughly unchanged since 2006, said Alex Nowrasteh, the immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center in Washington.
“The notion that a small cut in the budgets of ICE or CBP will result in a flood of unauthorized immigration is ludicrous," Nowrasteh said.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told senators in March that failing to agree on a deficit-reduction plan would require more than $3 billion in budget cuts that would “entail rolling back significant progress” in securing the border.
“This cut would equate to, say, all of CBP’s trade and customs operations at our land ports of entry or ICE’s enforcement and removal operations in their entirety or nearly half of our nation’s critical disaster-relief funding,” she told the senators.
The White House Office of Management and Budget has released few details about how such reductions would be made, but it issued a report in September that identified some of the cuts to key agencies.
Customs and Border Protection would see a reduction of $955 million, including at least $823 million in border protection enforcement, according to the OMB. Border security fencing, infrastructure and technology would lose $33 million.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement would see a cut of $478 million. The Transportation Security Administration would lose more than $640 million.
“One of the things that bothers me is all these containers that are coming in,” said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research center in Washington, who formerly served as staff director of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. He was referring to the containers of goods transported by tractor-trailers and ships. “Are we going to have the same level of screening to keep the bad stuff out, including radioactive materials and chemical and biological weapons and everything else that we’ve gotten better and better at finding at border stations?”
A recent report by the ranking Democratic member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., took a closer look at how such reductions might be implemented.
The Department of Homeland Security might have to cut an estimated 24,500 jobs, according to the report. The Border Patrol might lose 3,400 agents. Another 3,400 customs officer jobs might be eliminated, “significantly increasing wait times” at ports of entry. More than 930 Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents might lose their jobs. The TSA might cut 7,240 security officers.
“Clearly, any thoughtful, deliberate agreement will be an improvement over the mechanical and indiscriminate nature of sequestration cuts,” Dicks wrote in his report.
The TSA already has been developing contingency plans, according to chief John Pistole. He said at a briefing Nov. 13 that the agency would make cuts in other areas in order to protect “front-line operations.”
“The bottom line is to keep the front-line security operations in full force, to keep the movement of people and goods moving smoothly,” he said, according to a transcript.
A Border Patrol agent was killed and another was wounded in a shooting in October near a Border Patrol station in Naco, Ariz. Janice Kephart, a former counsel to the 9/11 Commission, said a further depletion of resources might lead to more dead agents.
“We’re seeing exquisite examples of Border Patrol agents – not only their effectiveness, but their safety – being hampered by policy,” said Kephart, who’s the director of national security policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limits on immigration.
“You see a reduction in the number of agents,” she said. “They’ve already been held at bay on their pay, on working overtime. The morale is extremely bad in Border Patrol anyway. And then you see them worried about who is going to have to go.”