‘Sequestration’ would weaken borders, lawmaker warns

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More than 8,500 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement personnel face termination in January under the Obama administration’s automatic spending cuts that take effect next year in a bid to attack the spiraling fiscal deficit.

The job losses, in the wake of massive efforts by the U.S. Border Patrol to significantly beef up security along the U.S.-Mexico border, would be the result of a “sequestration” in the federal budget, automatic spending cuts of 9.4 percent in 2013 for discretionary defense appropriations and 8.2 percent in 2013 for discretionary nondefense spending.

Rep. Norman D. Dicks, Washington Democrat, noted in an Oct. 9 “dear colleague” letter that if Congress and the president fail to reach agreement on a deficit-reduction plan, required budget cuts at the Department of Homeland Security would roll back what he called “significant progress” in securing the nation’s borders.

In the letter, Mr. Dicks said the cuts will increase wait times at land ports of entry and airports, hurt aviation and maritime safety and security, leave critical infrastructure vulnerable to attacks, hamper disaster-response times, and eliminate cybersecurity infrastructure that has been developed in recent years.

Mr. Dicks warned that cuts in the Border Patrol could affect security along the southwestern border, where drug-related violence has become increasingly commonplace since Mexican drug cartels began to fight each other for control of lucrative smuggling routes into the U.S.

In January, the Mexican government reported that 47,515 people had been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon began a military assault on criminal cartels soon after taking office in late 2006. The numbers included an 11 percent rise in drug-related killings in the first nine months of 2012 compared with the same period in 2011.

Several Border Patrol and ICE agents also have been killed in the line of duty in violent incidents involving Mexican drug smugglers.

Mr. Dick’s spokesman, George Behan, said the congressman has been concerned that elected officials and the public have focused on proposed defense spending cuts and not on other required reductions.

He said the letter was an effort by Mr. Dicks to examine the impact of sequestration on a wide range of federal programs and to ensure that members of Congress and their staffs are prepared to “move ahead” after the election to address the budget crisis.

“We’ve got to renegotiate this,” Mr. Behan said, adding that “the economy will suffer” if that doesn’t happen.

The Sequestration Transparency Act directed the Office of Management and Budget to report on how the administration interpreted the law related to implementing cuts. On Sept. 14, OMB submitted its report estimating percentage cuts for defense and nondefense appropriations, noting that they “would have a devastating impact on important defense and nondefense programs.”

Although the cuts were intended to be unacceptable to Republicans and Democrats, efforts at a bipartisan debt-reduction plan failed.

The White House has called sequestration a “blunt and indiscriminate instrument,” adding that it is “not the responsible way” to achieve deficit reduction.

However, Janice Kephart, a former counsel to the 9/11 Commission, said the White House wants a sequestration because the proposed cuts would “enhance and underscore” an open-border policy that President Obama favors but won’t back publicly.

“Border agents are already operating in the wake of failed southwest border security policies that have left both civilians and U.S. immigration agents dead on both sides of the border and placed hundreds of guns in drug lords’ hands in and out of the United States,” said Ms. Kephart, a nationally recognized border-security authority who now serves as director of national security policy at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Ms. Kephart said the U.S.-Mexico border, already under attack by brutal drug cartels, will be less secure with fewer agents, who already are operating in a dangerous environment because the administration has failed to provide the technology needed to get the job done.

“There currently is an insufficient number of agents to do their duties because we haven’t ramped up technology,” she said. “This lack of action has placed Border Patrol personnel in danger and, as a result, agents are being killed.”

Mr. Dicks, ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said that since the sequester would not be ordered under the Budget Control Act until January, federal agencies, including Homeland Security, would be forced to compensate for the first quarter of spending with even greater budget cuts through the rest of the year.

He said to achieve reduced funding levels:

A total of 3,400 Border Patrol agents could lose their jobs, a reduction to below fiscal 2009 levels, from an anticipated 21,370 agents to 17,970. He said a “cut of this magnitude” could significantly impede progress along the southwestern border.

CBP would lose 3,400 officers, a reduction to below fiscal 2007 on-board levels, from an anticipated 21,775 officers to 18,375. He said this cut could “significantly increase wait times at our nation’s land ports of entry.”

ICE would have to put 932 special agents out of work. He said a “decrease of this magnitude” could “significantly impact efforts to investigate crimes involving counter-proliferation, terrorism and transnational threats.”

ICE also could eliminate 802 enforcement and removal operation positions. He said these cuts could “significantly roll back progress that has resulted in record-high removals of illegal criminal aliens this past year.”

“In order to sustain front-line operations in recent years while facing declining budgets, [the Homeland Security Department] has already taken significant reductions to administrative and mission support functions over the past several years,” Mr. Dicks said. “Over $3 billion in cost avoidances and savings have been achieved to date, which leaves little else to cut without directly impacting front-line operations.”

In May 2006, President Bush ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to the southwestern border as part of Operation Jump Start to give the Border Patrol time to recruit, hire, train and assign 6,000 additional agents — the largest expansion in the agency’s history. Today, the Border Patrol has more than 21,000 agents and is one of the largest federal law enforcement agencies in the country.

The purpose of sequestration was to reduce the deficit by $2.4 trillion, initially by capping $1.2 trillion in discretionary appropriations through 2021. The second $1.2 trillion was targeted by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, but it could not reach an agreement.

“Sequestration is not so much a backup plan as an inducement for all sides to reach a compromise,” Mr. Dicks said. “Clearly, any thoughtful, deliberate agreement will be an improvement over the mechanical and indiscriminate nature of sequestration cuts.”

Since January 2008, three Border Patrol agents have been killed by gunfire and two others were the victims of vehicular assault. The Dec. 15, 2010, death of Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry, who was fatally shot during a gunfight with Mexican bandits near Rio Rico, Ariz., spurred congressional and Justice Department investigations into the botched Fast and Furious gun-running operation, during which more than 2,000 weapons — including semiautomatic AK-47 assault rifles — were “walked” into Mexico. Since January 2005, two ICE agents were killed as the result of gunfire, including Agent Jaime Zapata, who died during a Feb. 15, 2011, ambush on a major highway in Mexico.

The signature crimes of the most violent drug cartel in Mexico are its beheading and dismemberment of rival gang members, military personnel, law enforcement officers and public officials, and the random kidnapping and killing of civilians who get caught in its butchery and bloodletting. That violence has spread across the border, with Mexican gangs establishing footholds and alliances in states from Maryland to California. Some of the more frequent targets are U.S. law enforcement officers along the border.

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