Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Proposed DHS Budget Priorities Leave Accountability Behind

(Photo: Ted Eytan / Flickr)

Throughout his campaign, President Trump promised to build a wall on America’s southern border, increase vetting procedures for immigrants and refugees, and deport thousands of undocumented immigrants. However, it takes many taxpayer dollars to do all that.

Trump’s proposed budget for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is evidence that his administration is pursuing each of these goals—although it may come at the expense of security and DHS functions elsewhere. Furthermore, the budget proposes cuts for the DHS’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), an ominous sign for oversight and accountability. When a federal agency is poised to spend even more taxpayer dollars, it’s a good idea to expand oversight, rather than cut it back.

The President’s overall budget proposal requests $71.6 billion for DHS, a 7.1 percent increase over its current funding for the 2017 fiscal year. The proposed budget reflects a dramatic shift in security priorities, pouring most resources into efforts to control the southwestern border of the United States. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will see the most dramatic increases in their proposed funding, with 29.4 and 21.6 percent increases over 2017 budgets, respectively.

The increase in the CBP budget would include $1.6 billion for the planning, design, and construction of “32 miles of new border wall construction, 28 miles of levee wall along the Rio Grande, where apprehensions are the highest along the Southwest Border, and 14 miles of new border wall system that will replace existing secondary fence in the San Diego Sector,” according to the budget proposal.

Furthermore, the budget proposes millions of dollars of increased funds for southwestern border surveillance and security technology, tactical infrastructure, and increased border patrol staffing. This totals over $2.7 billion in DHS funds directed towards frontline border security—over 3 percent of the agency’s total budget.

As for ICE, the proposed budget troublingly requests $2.7 billion “to fund both direct and indirect costs for 51,370 detention beds,” an increase of over 21,000 beds from 2017, indicating that DHS expects to apprehend and detain substantially more individuals. Those individuals are mostly kept in contractor-run facilities where basic information about detainee populations and the facilities’ practices is largely kept out of the public eye. To support the goal of detaining more individuals, the budget also proposes a $185.9 million increase in ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations personnel who arrest, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants. Additionally, the budget seeks to establish a new initiative, the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office, to use a “’victim-centered approach’ to support victims of crimes committed by illegal aliens,” according to the budget proposal.

Meanwhile, the funds allocated to the OIG would be just 0.2 percent of the DHS’s total budget, after having its budget reduced by $3 million. At the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on the budget, Ranking Member Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) took issue with this proposal in her opening statement. “I’m concerned that even though the Administration is asking to spend more money on DHS, it’s cutting the budget of its watchdog that investigates waste, fraud, and abuse. In fact, the IG concluded that this budget will substantially inhibit him from performing the duties of his office,” she wrote.

Representative William R. Keating (D-MA) voiced a similar sentiment during the House Committee on Homeland Security hearing the next day, and Representative Brian K. Fitzpatrick (R-PA) said that an investment in the OIG now would bring savings in the long run. According to the OIG’s statistics, in FY 2016, the OIG reallocated $131.2 million to better use and recovered an addition $65 million.

The OIG is more important now than ever, since many DHS policies and actions—some taken in response to President Trump’s recent executive orders—are raising concerns about adherence to the rule of law and respect for civil liberties. During the Senate budget hearing, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) questioned DHS Secretary John F. Kelly on reports of American citizens’ cell phones being subjected to warrantless searches at airports. When pressed on the procedure and conditions for these decisions, Kelly stated that the criteria “are not specific enough to be published.”

Another concern raised by lawmakers, especially those from northern border and coastal states, is the sacrifice of security elsewhere when funds are focused primarily on the southwestern border. Senator McCaskill pointed out in her written testimony that the budget neglects increased support for personnel at ports of entry, despite the fact that “[t]he majority of drugs and other contraband come into this country through ports of entry, and CBP officers are the ones responsible for finding and stopping them.”

Senator Margaret Hassan (D-NH) reminded Secretary Kelly that focusing on just one border while leaving another wide open is “a false choice,” since cartels and other criminal organizations are smart and creative, and fully able to adjust to different routes if necessary. The CBP budget’s own Congressional Justification backs up this point, describing how transnational criminal organizations have “evolved responding to Western Hemisphere immigration policies[, which] has significantly changed the threat and activity at the Nation’s northern and coastal borders, and created the need for additional resources in sectors previously considered low risk due to low activity.”

In sum, the proposed DHS budget will create serious problems down the road. Its emphasis on the southwestern border will come at the cost of security elsewhere around the country. At the same time, its cutting the DHS watchdog’s budget imperils oversight and accountability.