Despite a doubling of border officers over the last nine years, the U.S. Border Patrol union is warning that furloughs, hiring freezes and overtime cuts could threaten recent security gains on border with Mexico as the patrol's parent agency seeks to trim $595 million under budget cuts.
The National Border Patrol Council, which represents some 17,000 rank-and-file agents, says the cuts would reduce agents' working week by around a fifth, leaving gaps in security along the porous, nearly 2,000-mile border.
Union Vice President Shawn Moran said planned cuts would give smugglers and unauthorized immigrants a better shot at slipping over the U.S. border, where a doubling in the number of agents to 18,500 since 2004 has contributed to a sharp fall in illegal immigrant arrests in recent years.
"In terms of operations, it's going to leave huge gaps in coverage and make it much more dangerous on the border for us, because we'll have fewer agents out there for backup," Moran told Reuters.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol's parent agency, said it believes individuals apprehended will still be processed normally and says the true impact of the budget cuts and their duration is not yet known.
But Moran said agents tasked with securing rugged, remote stretches of the border in Arizona, the principal thoroughfare for illegal immigrants and marijuana bound for the United States from Mexico, could be particularly hard hit.
Agents there routinely work a 50-hour-week, which allows them to attend a daily "muster" meeting at their Border Patrol station, before driving often for an hour or more to the area that they need to secure. Cutting 10 hours from their working week would lead to gaps during shift handovers, he said.
David Shirk, the director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute, said that it is hard to say whether border security will be significantly compromised by the budget cuts known as "sequestration" because multiple factors are at play.
"We've seen lower levels of crime, but it's difficult to tell what the security benefits of increased enforcement efforts are. What are the incremental gains or losses that come from an extra billion or so dollars spent?" he said.
FINANCIAL HIT FOR BORDER AGENTS
U.S. Customs and Border Protection faces total cuts of $595 million this year under the automatic cuts that went into affect this month when U.S. lawmakers were unable to agree on an alternative budget plan.
The agency has said reductions to Border Patrol overtime will begin on April 7 and furloughs of all CBP employees are expected to begin in mid-April.
Asked respond to the union's assertions, the agency said in a statement on Wednesday that "even with these cuts ... individuals apprehended illegally crossing the southwest border will still be processed as usual."
Because the length of the sequestration as well as future funding levels are currently unknown, CBP said it is "difficult to project the impact of the reductions on individual employees or job occupations."
The union said $245 million would be taken directly from Border Patrol agents, and the union estimates that agents - who routinely work an additional ten hours a week paid straight time, rather than time and a half - are expected to lose about $7,000 in income this year under the cuts.
"It's going to destroy a lot of people financially," Moran said.
The pending cuts come as Democrat President Barack Obama is pushing for a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system, which would include tightening border security and granting a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants who pay a fine, learn English and go to the back of the line. While the drive has the support of a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, it faces resistance from conservative Republicans.
Agents working in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector - the busiest on southwest border covering 262 miles of linear border - are based at eight stations and work one of three shifts covering the 24-hour period.
During their shift they head out to patrol in trucks, on quad bikes, horseback and helicopters, frequently tracking smugglers and illegal immigrants for dozens of miles over harsh desert and mountainous terrain.
David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement last week that guarding the border is not your typical nine-to-five job. Agents, he said, cannot just stop working "when they are in pursuit of drug and gun smugglers and others engaging in criminal activity on the border."
The effects of a smaller border staff will be felt more acutely at the ports of entry, said University of San Diego's Shirk, if it takes trucks, tourists, and workers even longer to cross the border legally from Mexico. On a normal day it can take anywhere between one and three hours, Shirk said. Add even more wait time and people will start avoiding it entirely.
"For those of us in border regions, less efficiency means lost revenue - and greater frustrations," he said.