Gallego: Sequester Hurts Border Security, Economy

Longtime State Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine,  pauses before answering a question at a TribLive event with Evan Smith on February 9, 2012.   gallego is running against incumbent Quico Canseco for the 23rd District of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Longtime State Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, pauses before answering a question at a TribLive event with Evan Smith on February 9, 2012. gallego is running against incumbent Quico Canseco for the 23rd District of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Congressman Pete Gallego on Thursday sent a letter to U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor urging lawmakers to end sequestration cuts that he said are reducing manpower and security on the border. 

“A lawmaker cannot be pro-sequester while also purporting to be pro-national security or supportive of a strong economy,” wrote Gallego, D-Alpine, whose district includes 800 miles of the Texas-Mexico and five ports of entry. “We must work for a solution to address the senseless cuts that hurt our border, our economy and our country.”

The letter describes the effects the required 5 percent mandatory cut under sequestration will have on components of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, including the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection. The reduction in work hours is equivalent to the department losing 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 2,500 CBP officers.

The cuts not only affect security, Gallego insists, but also increase wait times at ports and hurt trade with Mexico. The country is Texas’ largest trading partner and the country’s third-largest trade partner overall. The automatic budget cuts, which could total as much as $1.2 trillion over 10 years, took effect March 1 after Congress failed to reach agreement on how to curb federal spending.

So far, Republicans aren’t buying Democrats' claims about the severity of the cuts. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said last week on the Senate floor that Democrats are “fear-mongering” and suggested the Obama administration needed a fact-checker.

“Now is the time for governing, not for delivering more partisan stump speeches,” he said. “After all, the American people didn’t send us here to kick and scream over a 2.4 percent budget cut. They sent us here to make some hard decisions that are necessary to ensure long-term fiscal health and long-term economic prosperity.”

Last fiscal year, CBP processed about 25 million containers, seized more than $100 million in illicit cash and prevented about 4.2 million pounds of illegal narcotics from entering the country, according to Gallego's office.

“Furthermore, CBP’s National Targeting Center and Immigration Advisory Program prevented over 4,000 high-risk individuals from boarding flights destined to the United States – a 32 percent increase from the previous year,” he wrote. 

Gallego’s office said he has fielded calls from anxious constituents who have received furlough notices that warn of a pay cut as large as 30 percent. A copy of the letter supplied by his office says the work stoppage will begin no earlier than April 21 and will continue intermittently through the end of September. Full-time employees will be furloughed 14 work days, or 112 hours.

Officials in the CBP's Del Rio sector estimated that an agent's decrease in pay could range from $525 to $860, depending on their rank. For some agents, it means as much as a 30 percent reduction.

“Sequestration will make it extremely challenging — and in many cases impossible — for employees to meet their mortgage payments, pay their healthcare expenses, plan for retirement, or help their children attend college,” Gallego wrote. “To be blunt, these families are at risk. After years of dedicated service, CBP employees deserve more from their country’s leaders.”

On Thursday, one of Gallego’s Democratic colleagues, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, sent out a statement condemning the cuts, citing a U.S. Department of Commerce study that states that each minute of delay at the nation’s five busiest southern ports, which include Laredo, Hidalgo and El Paso, cost about $116 million in economic output.

Last year alone, more than $229 billion in trade passed through the Laredo customs district, and another $86 billion passed through the El Paso customs districts. Through January, Laredo saw more than $18.4 billion in trade pass through, while El Paso saw more than $6.8 billion, according to U.S. census data analyzed by WorldCity.

“In addition to the impact on trade and travel caused at the [ports of entry] the loss of income by Border Patrol agents across South Texas, approximately $6.18 [million] every two weeks, will be less money entering the South Texas economy and the loss of hours will equate [to] less manpower at Border Patrol checkpoints, resulting in lane closures and longer wait times,” Cuellar, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said in the statement.

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