National Immigration Forum

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Is Border Security a Fiscal Black Hole?

January 07, 2011 - Posted by Adam Salazar

Fiscal black hole


With the convening of a new Congress, both the public and the media are anxious to see how it will eventually unfold and what legacy, if any, it will leave behind.


Topic A for the new majority in Congress has been federal spending and the need to reduce it.  They vow an end to the spending that had been approved in the last Congress in the name of economic recovery.  Despite their philosophical differences in government spending overall, however, both parties throw fiscal restraint out the window when it comes to border security.  The result has been billions of dollars pumped into border security programs that haven’t yielded sustainable results nor have they been guided by a clear vision.


For example, in 2006, Congress allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for SBInet, a “virtual” fence that would use technology to detect border crossers.  However, in 2008 DHS and Congress decided to divert funding for SBInet to other programs after determining there were widespread malfunctions that made SBInet ineffective—an appraisal that should have been conducted prior to wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.


When discussing border enforcement funding with NPR this September, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona noted that lawmakers simply “have to guess at it and just say, ‘OK, here, we’ll give you $50 million.  How much will that do?” This is exactly what Congress did in August of last year—allocating well over $600 million in border supplemental spending that included another increase in border personnel and $32 million for two unmanned air-surveillance drones.  This measure sailed through both Congressional chambers without any hearings or studies being conducted. 


The new majority in Congress has given every indication that it wants to spend even more money on border enforcement.  When it comes to spending on the border, Republicans forget that they have been screaming about FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY for the last two years.  They have only vaguely referred to a strategy that will tackle both border security and the reforms necessary in the immigration system to allow enforcement resources to be deployed effectively.  


Although Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reported this week that he will “focus on wasteful spending” in areas such as Medicare fraud and food safety, he has steered clear of mentioning any pending investigations into border- or security-related spending.  In their “Pledge to America,” Republicans promise not to fix our broken immigration system, but only that they will “ensure that the Border Patrol has the tools and authority to establish operational control at the border.”   Representative Peter King (R-NY), in his list of priorities as the incoming Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee with oversight responsibility for the Department of Homeland Security, made no mention of fixing an immigration system that is fundamentally broken.  Instead, he has talked about “enacting additional border security legislation to curb illegal immigration,” as well as additional spending for yet more border security staffing, fencing and technology.


In the same Pledge where they promise more spending on the border, Republicans vow to “establish a hard cap on new discretionary spending,” going so far as to say “there is no reason to wait to reduce wasteful and unnecessary spending” and that “we must put common-sense limits on the growth of government and stop the endless increases.”  Perhaps as the new Congress considers shrinking government, it will begin putting more thought into the billions of dollars spent annually on border security efforts that lack justification, let alone a comprehensive approach.


Last November, the Center for American Progress and the Department of Defense’s Under Secretary, Ashton B. Carter, outlined ten strategies that could realistically save the federal government more than $50 billion per year on defense-related spending.  They cited “determining what to buy” as the biggest problem plaguing government procurement.  No longer should Congress estimate or simply throw $50 million at a problem and see how far that gets us, as with Senator Kyl’s approach to border security.  Rather, precision, calculation and foresight should be incorporated into decisions about security spending.  Changing the way law-makers spend on defense could potentially save billions of tax-payer dollars and quickly weed out security programs that do not work.  This kind of approach is sorely needed in the border enforcement arena.


The next Congressional session will be a test—a test as to whether genuine fiscal restraint and intelligent allocation of resources will bring some coherence to our approach to border enforcement, or whether law makers will continue to raid the tax-payer’s pocket book to throw money into the black hole that has become border security.


Image: iStockphoto/Marcopolo9442.

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