In a letter to Gov. Rick Perry, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that wait times at the nation’s busiest land port in Laredo could double to six hours and that more than $6 million in emergency management grants to Texas could be slashed because of the federal budget cuts that began taking effect Friday.
Detailing the effects of sequestration on agencies in Texas, Napolitano also said that international arrival wait times at the state’s busiest airports could increase by 50 percent and that the U.S. Coast Guard presence off Texas waters could decrease by 25 percent.
“Reductions mandated by sequestration will necessitate furloughs, hiring freezes and elimination of overtime pay for a significant portion of our frontline law enforcement personnel, which will impact staffing levels in Texas,” Napolitano wrote in the letter, dated Monday. “As sequestration is implemented, you can expect to see increased wait times at our nation’s airports and ports of entry, which will have serious consequences to the flow of trade and travel.”
The letter, provided to the Tribune by the office of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, says that in addition to Laredo, the port at El Paso, the second-busiest in Texas, might see an increase in average wait times to as long as three hours. There will also be a statewide reduction in “bio-agent detection and resiliency as well as explosive detection efforts.”
The governor’s office didn’t welcome the warnings.
“The administration should spend less time pointing fingers and more time working with Congress to find ways to responsibly and efficiently [rein] in the federal government’s spending habits,” Josh Havens, a spokesman in the governor’s office, said in an email. “Blind, across-the-board budget cuts at the expense of national security are not the answer to balancing the federal budget.”
Cuellar said he sent the letter to news outlets because he wanted to emphasize the true impact of the federal inaction.
“I just want people to look at the big picture when it comes to sequestration,” said Cuellar, who added that he voted in 2011 for a plan to cut $1.5 trillion from the federal budget. “It does hit hard and $3 billion will come from the Department of Homeland Security. It is going to have an effect.”
Havens’ response comes one day after the governor criticized the administration for releasing thousands of undocumented immigrants from detention centers without advising states as to where or how many were released in an area. On Tuesday, members of the House Judiciary Committee sent out a news release stating they have learned through a leaked document the government plans to release thousands more before the end of March.
“As of February 15, 2013, the document shows that ICE had roughly 31,000 illegal immigrants and criminal aliens in detention — already below the 34,000 mandated by Congress — and planned to reduce that number to less than 26,000 by March 31, 2013,” committee press secretary Jessica Baker said in a news release. “According to sources, roughly 2,000 criminal aliens may have already been released so far.”
Cuellar, the only Texas Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the budget cuts go far beyond that.
“It’s not only what ICE did, but it’s also happening on the floor, on the ground with Border Patrol, but especially with customs. I just wanted to make sure everybody got the big picture and not focus only on the things they want to focus on.”
The sequester could mean as many as 5,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents and 2,750 Customs and Border Protection agents could be furloughed for weeks at a time and denied overtime, according to earlier testimony from DHS officials.