McALLEN, RGV – Border commerce and tourism could grind to a virtual halt once furloughs and cuts in overtime for customs officers are fully implemented, the Texas Border Coalition has warned.“We are already seeing longer wait times at our land ports of entry due to the overtime ban. When the furloughs start in April it is only going to get worse,” Monica Weisberg-Stewart, chair of the TBC’s immigration and border security, told the Guardian.
“Some people are predicting wait times of six hours. Such a situation will bring border commerce and tourism to a virtual halt. We are going to see tomatoes and cucumbers left rotting on the trucks stuck on our international bridges.”
Weisberg-Stewart urged border communities, including business leaders and municipalities to contact the federal government to demand that overtime be restored for customs officers. She said the threat of furloughs for those on the security front lines should be eliminated.
“People have to wake up to what is happening. During hard economic times we have no business cutting manpower. Those on the frontline should not be included in any furlough. This is going to affect our economy and our security,” Weisberg-Stewart said.
“It affects everything we have built up. It makes us lose the gains we have made on the border. It tells our enemy we are not prepared. We have to get our federal government to realize what is happening. This is serious. This is big.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned of longer wait times at the ports of entry as a result of sequestration. Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee last month, Napolitano said sequestration would force her agency to begin furloughing frontline law enforcement personnel, reducing overtime, and decreasing hiring to backfill positions. In total, the cuts could impact more than 5,000 border patrol and 2,750 customs agent positions nationwide, she said.
Weisberg-Stewart said Napolitano has gone back on her word. She said that instead of 2,750 CBP officers being affected as a result of sequestration, 60,000 CBP officers, including those on the frontline, have been warned by the Department of Homeland Security that furloughs could start next month. She said the furloughs could mean full-time employees losing up to 14 days of work, or 112 hours, between April 21 and Sept. 30. “Every single person at port of entry, from port director down, got a furlough notice,” Weisberg-Stewart said. “This is serious. Wait times at our bridges will only get worse.”
Weisberg-Stewart said personnel reductions can only erode the current level of security in the border region. “While we may argue over the appropriate balance of personnel between and at the legal crossing points, nearly everyone on the border is certain that increased levels of personnel have increased border security,” she said.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is also concerned. He wrote a letter to Napolitano on Monday detailing his displeasure at her public comments on the impact of sequestration. In the letter, Cornyn demands a list of alternative cost-saving measures, an explanation as to why DHS is targeting CBP instead of non-security personnel for furlough, and a description of all charges that were being pursued against all released detainees.
“These actions call into question the Department’s commitment to its core missions and raise serious concerns about the judgment of DHS leadership,” Cornyn wrote. “I would urge you to follow OMB Guidance and look at alternative ways to implement the requirements of sequestration, including renewed efforts to eliminate wasteful and duplicative spending not aligned with core missions.”
OMB is the Office of Management and Budget in the White House. It devises and submits the president’s annual budget proposal to Congress. Cornyn’s letter to Napolitano is included at the end of this story.
While the current situation is bleak for border ports of entry, Weisberg-Stewart said, one positive development for the long term is a plan to allow public and private partnerships for port infrastructure projects. Legislation from Cornyn allowing such partnerships has been included in the Senate appropriations’ bills. Similar language is in the House appropriations bill. The TBC has been working on the proposals for years. “We are very pleased the public-private partnerships have been included. It will help us in the long run,” Weisberg-Stewart said.
In a news release, the TBC said the appropriations bills “authorize pilot alternative funding mechanisms for land ports of entry infrastructure, technology and personnel.  The language would authorize the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to pilot Public-Private Partnerships at the land ports under certain restrictions.”
Here is Sen. Cornyn’s letter to Secretary Napolitano:
March 8, 2013 The Honorable Janet Napolitano Secretary U.S. Department of Homeland Security 3801 Nebraska Avenue, N.W. Washington, DC 20528
Dear Secretary Napolitano:
I write today to express my concern with your recent statements regarding the impact of sequestration on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). I believe the misleading information you have provided regarding possible negative outcomes is unnecessary and an unacceptable alternative to producing common sense solutions to meeting the requirements of sequestration.
Under the March 1 sequestration, the Department is required to identify approximately $3.1 billion in cuts for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, a 5.1 percent reduction of total discretionary spending.  In written testimony submitted to the Senate Appropriations Committee, you indicated that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would have to reduce its work hours “by the equivalent of over 5,000 Border Patrol agents and the equivalent of over 2,750 CBP Officers.”
On March 4, you warned air travelers to expect delays in airport processing time of “between 150 and 200 percent” due to elimination of overtime and furloughs for Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and other airport agents.  In a letter also dated March 4 to Governor Rick Perry, you outlined how sequestration would impact DHS operations in Texas, including an increase in average peak wait times of up to 3 hours at certain Land and Air Ports of Entry, curtailed Coast Guard air and maritime operations along the Gulf Coast by up to 23 percent, and a reduced bio-agent and explosive detection capacity.
Border security and the detention of those who violate our laws are at the core of DHS’s mission. Yet last week, your Department released an unknown number of detainees into communities across Texas and the United States. To this day, your Department has not responded to numerous Congressional and state government requests for detailed information regarding the total number of detainees released by your department, the legal violations for which these individuals were being detained, or a geographic breakdown of releases. Your Department also released furlough notices on March 7, including notices to CBP personnel which explained the decision to furlough as required “to promote the efficiency of the [CBP] service by avoiding a deficit of funds in FY2013.” These actions call into question the Department’s commitment to its core missions and raise serious concerns about the judgment of DHS leadership.
Your actions and rhetoric regarding the requirements of sequestration are inconsistent with guidance provided to your Department.  A January 14, 2013 notice from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) urged agencies to “use any available flexibility to reduce operational risks and minimize impacts on the agency’s core mission.” The proposed furloughs of personnel and the release of criminal alien immigrants represent a violation of certain of the Department’s basic core missions, including: prevent terrorism and enhance security, secure and manage our borders, and enforce and administer our immigration laws.
I would urge you to follow OMB Guidance and look at alternative ways to implement the requirements of sequestration, including renewed efforts to eliminate wasteful and duplicative spending not aligned with core missions. The President’s own budget request for FY2013 estimated that the DHS could achieve $822 million in administrative and overhead savings by reducing spending on agency travel, printing, promotional materials, and costs associated with government vehicles.
I request a detailed list of alternative measures your Department considered to meet the budgetary reductions required by sequestration, particularly those which achieve cost savings without endangering our nation’s security and trade. With respect to the announced intention to furlough CBP and Border Patrol personnel, I request an explanation as to why DHS is targeting these agents and officers instead of prioritizing non-security budget reductions. With respect to your Department’s decision to release criminal detainees, I request a detailed description of the charges that were being pursued against all released detainees and whether or not those charges are still pending.
I look forward to your detailed and prompt reply.
Sen. John Cornyn