Border Security Cutbacks Part Of The Fiscal Cliff
December 14, 2012

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

NOGALES, Ariz. -- 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.” 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. It’s 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 Patrol’s 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 House’s budget office would not discuss details of proposed cuts. Instead it pointed to the testimony of Jeff Zients. He’s acting director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget and 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.

Photo by Michel Marizco
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 isn’t 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 equipment’s already been purchased and the savings would be minimal.

"And that’s there. So those are expenditures that you can’t really walk away from," Alden said.

It’s 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 FBI’s investigations into cross-border crime and corruption of federal agents.

Motyka predicts the FBI’s 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.