Politics

House GOP’s Border Security Sleight of Hand

Republicans add cash to DHS budget with one hand, take away funds with the other

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Tuesday bragged about a big boost in border-security funding in the spending bill negotiated with congressional Democrats, but he declined to mention a bit of budgetary sleight of hand.

House leaders highlight the $11.4 billion in funding for the Customs and Border Protection agency for the rest of the fiscal year, a $137 million increase above the last fiscal year. Rob Law, legislative affairs director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said that is a definite increase. But he added that it does not include $21.5 million that was previously budgeted for the Department of Homeland Security but had not been spent.

“We kind of figured there wasn’t going to be anything major on border security.”

“Instead of keeping the money in place, they revoked that money and basically started over,” he said. “It is a gain, but it could have been even more … If [former President Barack] Obama’s DHS had spent more money at the beginning of the fiscal year, there would be nothing left to take back.”

Law acknowledged that $21.5 million is a relatively small amount of money in the context of the federal budget. But he argued that it is President Donald Trump’s top priority and that those funds should have been kept in place, considering he gave in on a demand that the spending bill include money for a wall along the Mexican border.

The unspent Border and Customs Protection funds are a small part of an estimated $1 billion in unspent money in the Department of Homeland Security.

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Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said he is concerned that the spending bill does not appear to reflect the priorities of the union or the agency.

“We are getting more money, but it doesn’t appear to be getting money in areas of critical need,” he said, referring specifically to personnel.

Judd said the agency is about 1,500 officers below the 21,370-agent minimum that Congress set several years ago. What’s more, he added, the bill appears to delete any reference to that floor.

Judd said his preliminary analysis of the spending measure is that it goes light on patrol agents in favor of technology. Buying drones could simply allow agents to see border crossings that they cannot stop because there are not enough men and women in uniform, he said.

“It looks like it’s going to go heavy on technology,” he said. “But what we really need to have is the manpower to effectuate the arrests.”

Judd noted that to do it right, it takes about nine months to hire a new agent and another four months for the new hire to complete training before taking the field. Plus, he added, the Border Patrol has one of the highest rates of attrition in the federal government.

Waiting until the fiscal year 2018 budget before ramping up hiring means that people will not be in position until the following year after that, Judd said.

“If you kick the can down the road … you just wait another two years,” he said.

At his news conference on Tuesday, Ryan said the spending bill does more for border security than any measure in the last 10 years.

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“This puts more boots on the ground to bolster our border security,” he said. “In fact, this is the biggest increase in border-security funding in a decade.”

Ryan downplayed the significance of not including money for the wall.

“We’re giving the Border Patrol the kind of increases they need. We knew we needed a big down payment on border security,” he said. “We knew that with the five-month bill, the wall is really more about next year, and that fight’s gonna be this summer. But we wanted to get the administration a really good down payment on border security.”

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Conservatives already are smarting at the perception that Democrats rolled Republicans in negotiations. Heritage Action for America on Tuesday cited inadequate provisions to fight illegal immigration among a long list of shortcomings as it announced that it would demand a “no” vote by lawmakers on its legislative scorecard.

Trump has sent mixed messages. He praised border security funding during a ceremony honoring the Air Force Academy football team for winning the Commander-in-Chief trophy. But he also tweeted, “Either elect more Republican Senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%. Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”

Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA, said it is disappointing but not surprising that the spending deal does not include more to secure the border.

“We kind of figured there wasn’t going to be anything major on border security,” he said.

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