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Sequester cuts raising fears of security setback near the border

It was the trash that first drew Roger Barnett's attention.

Piled a foot-deep on some trails, his 22,000-acre Cross Rail Ranch near Douglas, Ariz., had become a major route for illegal immigrants headed north. The ranch sits in what law enforcement authorities called the "avenue of choice" for people trying to sneak into the U.S. There were so many moving through so often, he said it looked like a "slow motion invasion."

"Literally, I felt like the guy with his finger in the dike, and I just didn't think I could hold back the flood," he said.

Mr. Barnett began rounding up illegal immigrants in 1998 after they started to vandalize his property — destroying water pumps, killing calves, vandalizing fences and gates, stealing trucks and breaking into his house. Some of his cattle died from ingesting the plastic bottles left behind.

"We're still overrun, but not like it used to be," Mr. Barnett told The Washington Times. "But it will get that way again, and rather quickly, as they pull U.S. Border Patrol agents off the line. I hate to see them go."

Mr. Barnett, like a growing number of border residents and Border Patrol agents, is fearful that sequestration will result in a security setback in the government's claim — made just last week in testimony by Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher — that the border is "more secure than ever before."

They said efforts to secure the border that took more than a decade and cost millions of taxpayer dollars could suffer a serious setback in the government's bid to block the entry of illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and terrorists to the U.S.

"I don't know who thought this was a good idea," said one agent assigned to the Border Patrol's busy Tucson, Ariz., sector. "There's no doubt that alien and drug smuggling will increase once the smugglers see what's going on. And don't doubt for a second they aren't watching and waiting to take advantage of a drop in manpower along the border."

As part of sequestration, work furlough notices have been sent to thousands of U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel, including Border Patrol agents, because of required budget cuts. The agents would be mandated to have a furlough day each pay period resulting in a cumulative loss of 5,000 agents in the field. Beginning in mid-April, the agents each will lose 14 workdays through September.

On March 2, the Border Patrol's normal 10-hour work shifts were ordered cut to eight hours. The cuts were necessary, CBP officials said, to account for $754 million in mandated spending reductions for the agency as a result of the failure of President Obama and Congress to reach an agreement on the budget to prevent sequestration.

'Calculated, willful neglect'

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican who serves on both the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees, has expressed "outrage" over Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano's response to sequestration — including the overtime cuts and the furlough notices to Border Patrol agents, which he said could leave "portions of our borders unmanned for hours at a time."

In a letter this month, he asked Ms. Napolitano to explain why the department is targeting CBP law enforcement personnel instead of nonsecurity personnel for furloughs. Mr. Cornyn, who is ranking member of the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, refugees and border security, said the furloughs "call into question the department's commitment to its core missions and raise serious concerns about the judgment of DHS leadership."

Mr. Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general, said Homeland Security's ongoing effort to identify $3.1 billion in cuts for fiscal 2013, a 5.1 percent reduction of total discretionary spending, would result in a reduction of more than 5,000 Border Patrol agents. He said border security and the detention of those who violate U.S. laws are at the core of Homeland Security's mission.

"When the secretary of Homeland Security decides to pull thousands of Border Patrol agents from their posts instead of making already identified, common-sense administrative cuts, there can only be one motive: using fear to make a political point," he said. "Her homework's been done for her; it's time for Secretary Napolitano to target real excess in her department and trim her budget without putting our national security at risk."

Mr. Cornyn described the Obama administration's actions regarding the Border Patrol as "nothing short of a calculated, willful neglect of what should be a president's top priority: protecting the homeland and keeping Americans safe. The fact that the administration would needlessly jeopardize the safety of American citizens as part of a continued misinformation campaign surrounding the effects of sequestration is outrageous and reprehensible."

Concerns about the furloughs and overtime cuts come at a time that top Homeland Security officials have acknowledged to Congress that they don't have a way to effectively measure border security — a revelation that lawmakers have said could doom the chances for passing any meaningful immigration reform legislation this year. The admission stunned lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who said that without a way to measure border security, they may not be able to convince voters to accept a new legalization plan.

In 2007, the last time the Senate debated immigration, the bill failed because voters didn't believe the government was serious enough about gaining control of the border. And now, six years later, no one can tell Congress how successful the government has been in its multimillion-dollar effort to upgrade manpower and technology to better secure the border.

10-hour workdays

Border Patrol agents normally work 10-hour days, part of a program known as "administratively uncontrolled overtime". It is how the agents were hired, most of whom signed on as part of a recruitment drive that promised an "excellent opportunity for overtime pay."

Uncontrolled overtime covers employees in positions that require substantial amounts of irregular, unscheduled overtime work that cannot be controlled administratively, with the employee generally being responsible for recognizing, without supervision, circumstances that require him to remain on duty.

Under sequestration, the elimination of overtime pay could cost field agents an average of $7,000 a year and spark what some say could be an exodus of veteran agents to other agencies.The Border Patrol is a popular place for other, better-paying federal agencies to look for experienced law enforcement officers who can be laterally transferred. Border Patrol agents start at $36,658 a year compared to $49,347 for the FBI and $49,746 for the Drug Enforcement Administration. The cut significantly affects those agents who have two-hour drives to remote duty stations.

"CBP will continue to make every effort to minimize the sequester's impact on public safety and national security," the agency said in a statement.CBP also acknowledged that 12 Border Patrol agents-in-charge quietly received pay raises just days before the furloughs and overtime cuts were announced, but said they had nothing to do with sequestration. In a statement, the agency said the raises were part of a "long-term initiative, begun by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2008, to ensure that job responsibilities and pay are appropriately aligned."

Brunt of cuts

Ms. Napolitano acknowledged during a White House briefing in February that sequestration would have an impact on national security. She said the department would not be able to maintain the same level of security at all places around the country and that the furloughs and loss of overtime pay would decrease the number of hours Border Patrol has to operate between the nation's ports of entry by as many as 5,000 agents.

"I don't think we can maintain the same level of security," Ms. Napolitano said. "If you have 5,000 fewer Border Patrol agents, you have 5,000 fewer Border Patrol agents."

The loss of those agents also concerns Carmen Mercer, a longtime businesswoman and resident of Tombstone, Ariz., who thinks the furloughs and overtime cuts bode poorly for long-suffering border residents.

"It means one thing: We going to be overrun again," she told The Times. "When we got to 20,000 agents, it did make a difference."

Ms. Mercer, a native of Germany who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, is no stranger to the problem of illegal immigration.

She helped organize more than 4,500 Minuteman volunteers who participated in the first 30-day vigil along the Arizona border in March 2005 to protest what they considered lax U.S. immigration policies. They manned observation posts along the border and were credited with forcing thousands of illegal immigrants to find other areas to cross into the U.S. — proving that more personnel on the border was a deterrent.

Many rank-and-file Border Patrol agents continue to think that the agency gets short shrift in both pay and manpower. In 1992, the Border Patrol had 4,200 agents patrolling 7,500 miles of border with Mexico and Canada. Today, there are 21,400 agents, the vast majority of whom are stationed along the Southwest border. Most of that growth occurred from 2001 to 2009 under President George W. Bush.

More than a dozen Border Patrol agents contacted by The Times, all of whom asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, think the agency has been singled out to bear the brunt of sequestration.

They noted that CBP proposed overtime cuts totaling $285 million, but the Border Patrol share of that amount is $248 million. Cuts for two other CBP agencies were listed at $35 million for the Office of Field Operations and $2 million for the Office of Air and Marine.

'Enormous disparity'

"One thing that should leap off the page is the enormous disparity of overtime cuts between the three components," said the National Border Patrol Council in a statement.

While the Border Patrol and the Office of Field Operations have about the same number of people, the patrol council said OFO is mandated to make up 6.4 percent of the budget cut while the Border Patrol "appears to be picking up the lion's share of the tab" with 87 percent of the proposed cuts. The council, which represents all 17,000 of the agency's nonsupervisory personnel, said CBP has historically targeted Border Patrol agents with pay reforms that single out the agents for huge pay reductions.

J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said Homeland Security singled out the Border Patrol for the largest financial penalty of any other group of federal workers. He said the furloughs and loss of overtime will reduce an agent's paycheck by 35 percent — more than even civilian Defense Department workers who face 22 days without pay.

"Guarding the border is not a 9-to-5 job. Overtime work is routine, and when they are hired, agents are informed that they will almost never work a regular eight-hour shift," he said. "Instead, they are expected to work at least 10 hours every day and often more because they do not stop when they are in pursuit of drug and gun smugglers and others engaging in criminal activity on the border.

"Mr. Cox called sequestration "good news for criminals and others who would enter our country illegally, but very bad news for Americans who rely on the courage and devotion of Border Patrol agents who risk their lives every day to keep drugs and guns and gangs outside our borders."

Mr. Barnett does not want a return to the days when some of his ranch's established trails were decimated with the trash left behind by illegal immigrants: "When you are actually out here on the line and see what's happening firsthand, it is very frustrating."

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