Feb. 21, 2011 -- When it comes to border security, House Republicans have been outspoken and unambiguous.
They say more resources are needed to stop illegal flows of immigrants, drugs and weapons entering the U.S., and insist the Obama administration has not acted aggressively enough to bolster border security.
"The President's budget proves once again that the Obama administration is not serious about enforcing our nation's immigration laws," said Texas Rep. Lamar Smith earlier this month. "By underfunding key national security programs, we leave ourselves vulnerable to future terrorist attacks."
But even as GOP lawmakers demand tighter border enforcement as a prerequisite for comprehensive immigration reform legislation, Republicans in the House have approved a 2012 budget that seems to undermine that goal.
The House voted mostly along party lines over the weekend to slash spending by an estimated $600 million for border security and immigration enforcement for the remainder of this fiscal year.
The budget allocates $350 million less for border security fencing, infrastructure and technology than Congress approved last year, and $124 million below what the Department of Homeland Security requested.
The bill also cuts an estimated $159 million over last year for Customs and Border Protection modernization and construction programs, and is $40 million less than the agency sought to get the job done.
Republicans approved salaries and expenses for "no fewer than" 20,500 Border Patrol agents through the fiscal year. President Obama's fiscal year 2012 budget, by comparison, would provide for 21,185 Border Patrol agents, according to estimates provided by the administration.
"For gosh sakes, we've had everybody talking about 'Secure the borders, secure the borders, secure the borders,' and then instead of making some reasonable adjustments in checks we write to oil companies, they're cutting border security," said Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill on "Fox News Sunday."
The cuts "will severely jeopardize the administration's plan to increase the use of technologies that have proven effective in securing our border," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
But Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., who chairs the House Budget Committee, has defended the cuts saying that agencies like the Department of Homeland Security had significant budget increases last year and that funding levels are not sustainable.
"We cannot continue down this path of having double- and triple-digit spending increases on government agencies," he said earlier this month. "No matter how popular sounding these programs are, they mortgage our children's future and they compromise our economic growth today."
Wanting It Both Ways on Border Security
Ryan's view that some immigration enforcement funding is dispensable sharply contrasts with the urgency of recent calls by many Republicans for more money and manpower in the name of national security.
"Advanced technology has aided the mission of deterring and detecting illegal immigrants before they enter our country. Still, a substantial stretch of land goes undetected each and every day," said Georgia Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey, who traveled the U.S.-Mexico border from El Paso, Texas, to Arizona with two Republican colleagues last month.
"Although the technology is effective in contributing to a decrease in the number of illegal crossings, we need to continue expanding the use of these valuable systems," he said.
Iowa Rep. Steve King, who accompanied Gingrey on the trip and is a leading advocate for tighter border controls, also touted the value of expanding the border fence.
"I've probably traveled every mile of the border from the Pacific Ocean across California and Arizona, New Mexico to El Paso, [Texas]," King said in an interview earlier this month. "And the fencing around El Paso clearly is working. They have a fence, a canal with a lot of water rushing down it, and another fence. … But as you fortify one section of the border and redirect traffic to the weakest area, you also have to add resources there."
Both King and Gingrey joined 233 fellow House Republicans in voting for a budget bill that cuts millions of dollars from border surveillance technology and fencing initiatives.
"I think all of us have to recognize that there's a problem with the deficit," said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which favors stricter immigration controls. "So we have a little bit of understanding on that. ... But the cuts to fence and surveillance spending are very discouraging because that has been promised. The fence more than anything protects against people coming across the border meant to harm us."
The Department of Homeland Security has deployed record numbers of Border Patrol agents and technological resources along the border over the past several years. It has also reported unprecedented totals of illegal immigrant apprehensions and deportations and seizures of illicit shipments of weapons and drugs.
"The border is as secure now as it's ever been, but we know we can always do more and that will always be the case," Secretary Janet Napolitano said last summer and repeated many times since. "It's a big border. It is 1,960 miles across that southwest border. It's some of the roughest toughest geographical terrain in the world across that border. … You're never going to totally seal the border."
But Republicans and illegal immigration opponents, including NumbersUSA, strongly dispute claims that the border is secure, insisting the region remains highly dangerous and far from under control.
"Though Napolitano may not want to admit it, the southern U.S. border is far from secure," said Smith, of Texas late last year.
It's a point on which Beck agrees. "Money is not the main problem," he said. "It's a problem of will. Even with the reduced amount of spending we could still have a secure border if President Obama and Janet Napolitano gave orders to enforce it more aggressively."