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Border Officials: Federal Budget Inaction Could Weaken Security, Trade

“The border is safe.” That’s a common refrain from lawmakers who say the unprecedented buildup of law enforcement in the region has netted positive results. But as sequestration looms, lawmakers say federal inaction could put that reality in jeopardy.

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The same week Texas Democrats touted the results of a government study that shows border communities are safe, a federal stalemate could shrink the law enforcement build-up that helped make those results possible.

On Friday, the first phase of sequestration — the automatic budget cuts that could total as much as $1.2 trillion over 10 years — will take effect if Congress fails to reach agreement on how to curb federal spending. 

Border officials warned lawmakers that sweeping cuts to the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection could significantly alter the economics and security of the region. The Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and private-sector leaders that advocates for additional resources at the nation’s land ports, said a sequester could have disastrous effects on Texas’ steadily increasing trade with Mexico.

That country is Texas’ largest trading partner and the United States’ third largest overall. Four of Mexico’s top 10 trading destinations are in Texas, led by Laredo and El Paso, which respectively saw more than $229 billion and $86 billion in trade last calendar year, according to U.S. census data analyzed by WorldCity.

Sequestration could affect more than 5,000 Border Patrol and 2,750 customs agents, said Monica Weisberg-Stewart, the chairwoman of the TBC’s immigration and border security subcommittee, citing Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The drawdown would increase wait times at the ports of entry to as high as five hours, and the U.S. Border Patrol could lose as much as $754 million, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine.

Weisberg-Stewart said as much attention should be placed on customs agents — who facilitate legal trade and migration at the nation’s ports — as is heaped on security.

“It seems like there is some confusion because everybody automatically mentions Border Patrol, but they don’t realize the effects on Customs and Border Protection and our trade and our security,” she said. She said the situation should be viewed as even more dire because the government’s own watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, said last year that the nation’s ports are short 6,000 agents and need $6 billion worth of infrastructure improvements.

“The figures that have come out show that if something bad is trying to get in between our ports of entry, there is a 90 percent chance that Border Patrol will catch it,” she said. “At out ports of entry, there is a 70 percent chance it will get right through. That is a big concern.”

Earlier this week, the GAO released a separate report on the concerns and data related to spillover violence from Mexico. It states that the violent crime rates in border counties was lower than in nonborder counties in Texas and California from 2004 to 2011, and that the violent crime rate overall in the southwest border states was lower during the same time frame. From 2004 to 2011, the GAO found, violent crime fell by 30 percent in Texas’ border counties and 24 percent in the entire state.

"This report verifies that the border is as safe a place to raise a family, build a business, or enjoy retirement as nearly any other area of the country,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said in a statement. “We must remain vigilant and continue to strengthen our federal, state and local law enforcement agencies so they can keep the border secure.”

The looming across-the-board cuts have already produced controversial results. Earlier this week Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which oversees the detention of criminal and noncriminal immigration violators, released hundreds of what the government classifies as low-risk immigrants. Republicans were quick to call the move political pandering.

“It’s abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration,” U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the Administration is needlessly endangering American lives.  It also undermines our efforts to come together with the Administration and reform our nation’s immigration laws.”

In the midst of such an ominous situation, however, some see a chance for positive change.

Nelson Balido, the chairman of the Border Trade Alliance, said the cuts and their aftermath might prompt Congress to pass a measure filed by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. The Cross Border Trade Enhancement Act would allow private sector and current public sector funds to be leveraged and used to fund port improvements and increase staffing levels.

“The federal government simply doesn’t have the resources necessary to keep up with all of the growing demands placed on our borders due to rising trade flows and ongoing security concerns,” Balido wrote. “But local communities and the private sector are ready to act where the feds can’t or won’t. They just need the legislative authority to do so.”

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