Following Pres. Bush’s speech on immigration and border security, I questioned the idea of posting National Guard troops at the border primarily due to issues of cost and feasibility. Today the White House and OMB released their cost assessment for this proposal, and it’s not cheap: $756 million/year.
This translates to $126,000 per person on an annualized basis. How did they come up with this figure? I’m not sure, but it’s very close to the average cost of a Border Patrol agent, which was approx. $127,000 per year in FY 2005 and $133,000 per year in FY 2006. About 88% of the total cost of an existing Border Patrol agent is for salary and benefits, with non-salary costs (travel, equipment, rent) taking up the remaining 12%. While the salary costs will be lower in the case of the Guard (the Border Patrol’s average salary is approx. $60,000/year, not including overtime and benefits), the non-salary costs are likely to be much higher in this case, for several reasons:
- Much of the Guard’s existing equipment is likely to be ill-suited for border security tasks;
- The federal government will be responsible for finding and paying for the Guard’s housing;
- The federal government will have to pay to move the Guard in and out of the border areas in two-week rotations, which implies a high travel cost;
- There will be a need for training for many of the critical tasks mentioned in Bush’s speech – training which will be completely depreciated at the end of people’s rotations.
Because of these needs, I would not be surprised to see that the actual expenditures resulting from this proposal end up being larger than $756 million.
Another point of comparison is the $290 million that was spent to deploy 7,000 National Guard troops to airports for eight months after 9/11. That works out to $62,000 per person per year, but the costs of this mission were lower because the National Guard members could still live at home and had fewer needs in terms of training, travel and equipment.
Even if this is an accurate estimate, it’s worth asking: what else could this money buy to improve our homeland security? I can think of dozens of ways that this money could be better spent in pursuit of the same objective. The recruitment and training of new Border Patrol agents could be accelerated even further. You could built 250-350 miles of a triple-layered fence on the border for that amount. The incremental port security investments included in the SAFE Ports Act could be funded. Charlie Allen could get the resources he needs to build up DHS’ intelligence shop. DHS could finally create a robust chemical security program for a few percentage points of this total. DHS could staff up its policy office to a decent size for 1-2% of this total. And so on. Overall, this proposal is a wasteful way to spend money on homeland security when there are so many other pressing needs.