December 17, 2012

Fiscal cliff would mean cutbacks to US-Mexico border security

Michel Marizco, Fronteras Desk with Take Two | December 17th, 2012, 10:00am
Listen Now
[4 min 11 sec ]]

Scott Olson/Getty Images

An U.S. Customs and Border Protection bike patrol agent assists Mexican's being returned to Mexico after they were apprehended for entering the United States illegally June 2, 2010 in Nogales, Arizona. A fence which separates the cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora Mexico is a frequent crossing point for people entering the United States illegally. During the 2009 fiscal year 540,865 undocumented immigrants were apprehended entering the United States illegally along the Mexican border, 241,000 of those were captured in the 262 mile stretch of the border known as the Tucson Sector.

President Obama and Speaker John Boehner met at the White House this morning to discuss the fiscal cliff. The two sides would need to come to some agreement tomorrow in order for the measure to get through Congress before the scheduled holiday break.

If the nation plunges over the fiscal cliff, it would have an immeasurable impact at the U.S. Mexico border. From the Fronteras Desk in Tucson, Michel Marizco reports.

NOGALES, Ariz. ó If the nation plunges over the so-called fiscal cliff in a few weeks, the seven years of sustained buildup of U.S. Border Patrol agents would shift into the opposite direction.

At the Interstate 19 Border Patrol checkpoint in Arizona, a trio of agents inspect semitrailers and cars traveling up from the Mexican border toward Tucson. An agent standing in this lane is asking people their citizenship.

"How you doing? U.S. citizen?" he asks a truck driver who rumbles up in a bright red semitrailer.

The agent is also inspecting paperwork on the drivers of the semitrailer. There's a problem here, though. "Do you have any papers for this? This is expired.Ē He directs the driver to pull off to the side for a more thorough search.

The checkpoint sits about 20 miles north of the Nogales port of entry. Itís a stop-gap in the funnel, the last federal inspection for traffic heading north. Checkpoints like these across the nation are responsible for one-third of the Border Patrolís total drug seizures in any given year.

Now talk of the fiscal cliff raises some uncomfortable possibilities. Nationwide, unemployment jumping to 10 percent. Higher taxes. Defense spending cuts. But here on the border, the discussion is the domestic security cuts.

This agent is one of 4,000 Border Patrol agents working in Arizona. The Border Patrol is the largest law enforcement agency in the country, at nearly 22,000 agents. The Homeland Security Department, its umbrella agency, is one of the departments facing possible cuts, or sequestration if politicians don't come up with a compromise.

Sequestration, if it happens, will mean fewer agents, longer lines, and less intelligence capabilities to combat organized crime along the border.

The White Houseís budget office would not discuss details of proposed cuts.

Instead it pointed to the testimony of Jeff Zients. Heís acting director of the White Houseís Office of Management and Budgetand he addressed the House Armed Service Committee in August.

"If allowed to occur, the sequestration would be highly destructive to domestic investments, national security, and core government functions," Zientz said.

A more detailed look at the possible cuts comes from the House Appropriations Committee. It issued a report in October and estimated cuts of 3,400 Border Patrol agents, 3,400 Customs and Border Protection officers, and another 7,200 Transportation Security agents.

"None of this is carved in stone. There will be discretion in the agency to decide what cuts to make," said Edward Alden, a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent questions drivers traveling north on Interstate 19 in southern Arizona.

Logistically, cutting employees makes the most sense. Cutting border fence maintenance isnít an option or the agency would lose all the headway it's made in building the massive border barrier. Grounding drones or helicopters is also not likely. The equipmentís already been purchased and the savings would be minimal.

"And thatís there. So those are expenditures that you canít really walk away from," Alden said.

Itís not just Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol, or those lines at the checkpoints. If the cuts go into effect, the FBI is also targeted. The FBI would absorb a cut of a little more than $700 million dollars.

Konrad Motyka is president of the FBI Agents Association. He ticks off the list where those cuts would come in at the FBI.

"Upgrades, purchasing new automobiles, gasoline budget, purchasing new lab equipment, canceling of classes at the academy, those kinds of things," he said.
In other words, all kinds of support infrastructure for the FBIís investigations into cross-border crime and corruption of federal agents.

Motyka predicts the FBIís cuts would be called furloughs -- staff may not be permanently gone. But that doesn't mirror the grim outline of other suggestions put forward by the Appropriations Committee. In total, the committee predicted the Department of Justice would eliminate 7,500 positions. That includes 3,000 FBI, DEA, ATF agents and U.S. Marshals, and another 1,000 prosecutors. As for the Border Patrol, thousands would simply be laid off.