Immigration reform legislation has been debated for the last couple of weeks on the floor of the Senate, and late last week a compromise emerged – in the form of an amendment from Sen. Corker and Sen. Hoeven – that appears to have secured enough votes for the bill to survive a cloture vote in the coming week and then move to final passage. This New York Times story provides a good overview of the state of play.
One of the key provisions in the amendment (which is technically being wrapped into a larger substitute amendment) is $30 billion in funding over the next decade to add 19,200 new Border Patrol agents, nearly doubling the size of the Border Patrol from its current staffing level of 21,370 agents.
This proposal is a terrible idea – one that would be wasteful of taxpayers’ money and is not based on sound operational or technical analysis as to what investments are really needed to improve border security.
Before discussing this in depth, let me be clear: I would like to see broad-based and balanced immigration reform legislation be enacted, and it is sensible for a component of that legislation to be focused on border security, as is the case with ‘Gang of 8’ base bill. Many of the border provisions in the base legislation are reasonable, including proposed investments in technology and infrastructure (although strong oversight is needed on these, given the history of SBInet) and the proposal to increase the number of Customs and Border Protection Officers (CBPO’s, who are different from Border Patrol agents).
However, the proposal to double the number of Border Patrol agents is different, and is something that deserves careful scrutiny by people on all sides of this debate before moving forward.
I have three primary concerns about this provision:
First, adding “boots on the ground” may make for a good soundbite, but it’s a costly and inefficient way to improve border security. CBP spends around $3.2 billion/year today on personnel costs for the Border Patrol – a figure that doesn’t include the cost to train and equip them. This $3.2 billion is already a very large chunk of DHS’s budget – as a point of comparison, it’s about 3-4 times greater than what the Department spends overall each year in support of its cybersecurity mission. A proposal to double the Border Patrol would increase that total to over $6 billion/year in current dollars – and this would be an annual investment for the long-term, because of the difficulties associated with reducing such a workforce once you’ve expanded it.
Second, this proposal is not based on any real analysis about operational needs on the border. Has anyone assessed what are these additional 19,200 agents going to do, or where are they going to work, or what infrastructure is needed to support them? Not that I’ve seen, and I doubt that any analysis along these lines has been done. And if we’re going to be making technology and infrastructure investments (e.g. fixed towers, UAVs, better comms) using funds available elsewhere in the legislation to improve the operational efficiency of the current Border Patrol agents, then why it is logical that we would also need twice as many of them? As it is, we are already at the point where in some parts of the country, we’re seeing the “diminishing marginal returns” in border security that Secretary Napolitano spoke of a few months ago, exemplified by media reports where Border Patrol agents are fighting constant boredom. Given this, I think it’s very hard to justify this proposal on its operational merits.
Third, it would be unwise to be spending billions of dollars to double the size of the Border Patrol when many of the other parts of DHS (and other key security-focused agencies) are struggling under the weight of four years of flat and declining budgets, topped off in the last few months by the cuts of sequestration. For example, the Coast Guard is cutting personnel and continues to be delayed in its acquisition of its next generation of maritime vessels due to budget constraints. (And keep in mind that the Coast Guard’s maritime border security requirements in the Gulf of Mexico and southern California will likely increase as the southwest land border becomes more secure). The FBI is expecting that it’s going to need to furlough agents next year because of sequestration. Nearly every part of DHS has felt the impact of budget cuts by Congress in the last four years – in many cases trimming out needed fat, but now to the point where the cuts are having an operational impact. But now, suddenly, the Senate is proposing to spend tens of billions of dollars to double the size of the Border Patrol without one iota of analysis.
Given these three factors, I would hope that members of Congress in both parties would rethink this fiscally and operationally unwise proposal, regardless of their position on the broader bill. There are many better ways to accomplish the shared goal of improved border security. Some of these are already integrated into the base bill, and others, such as increased resources to investigate overseas human trafficking and smuggling organizations, and increases to the intelligence offices at CBP and ICE, and increases to state and local law enforcement grants in border states, would cost much less but collectively deliver a greater overall benefit to border security.
The agents who currently serve in the Border Patrol are hard-working and patriotic, and deserve our support. But doubling their ranks doesn’t make any sense, and would be a fiscally irresponsible and operationally uninformed decision by the Congress.