Senate Republicans rebuffed President Trump’s request for a hiring spree at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, although lawmakers did support increased funding for other components at the Homeland Security Department in an appropriations bill released Tuesday.
The Trump administration had requested 1,000 new ICE agents and 500 new Customs and Border Protection officers in its fiscal 2018 budget request to serve as an initial investment on the 15,000 total hires the president demanded at the agencies in an executive order earlier this year. The House has approved a bill that would fund the administration's request, but the Senate included such money only for CBP in a bill Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., unveiled on Tuesday.
Democrats applauded the decision to exclude funding for what they called “deportation officers,” even as they denounced the inclusion of $1.6 billion to enable CBP to begin construction of Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“This is bumper sticker budgeting to save face for one of President Trump’s failed campaign promises,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the top Democrat on the appropriations panel. “Instead of wasting billions of taxpayer dollars to fund this costly and ineffective proxy for real action on immigration reform, we should be directing our resources toward finding cures for cancer, building schools for our children, feeding the hungry, rebuilding our infrastructure and real security.”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee with authority over DHS, said the wall funding came at the expense of other DHS priorities and that Congress could better fund border security with investments in technology and manpower.
The Transportation Security Administration would also face a hit to its workforce under the Senate bill. The measure would cut funding for transportation security officers by $83 million, which Leahy and Tester estimated would lead to 1,000 fewer employees. In the omnibus spending bill that funded government through fiscal 2017, lawmakers agreed to boost TSA funding so it could hire 1,400 new screeners. Republicans noted their bill would still provide for 1,000 more screeners than Trump proposed in his budget.
DHS has struggled to meet the hiring directives Trump authorized. The same omnibus bill actually cut CBP workforce spending by $200 million, as the agency indicated to Congress it would hire 3,000 fewer agents than it initially projected. The DHS inspector general has estimated that based on current hiring and attrition rates, CBP would need 750,000 applicants to fill Trump’s order. It is, however, adjusting its polygraph test and reforming its training process, factors that would affect the hiring rate. Agency leaders have said the average application processing time has decreased from 400 days in 2014 to 160 days today.
The House has moved forward, undaunted in its bid to meet Trump’s requests. In September, the chamber approved a fiscal 2018 spending bill that would provide $100 million for the Border Patrol to hire 500 new agents and $186.5 million for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to boost its ranks by 1,000 officers next year. It also backed the 2017 Border Security for America Act (H.R. 3548), which would authorize CBP to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents and an additional 5,000 customs officers. The former mandate is one Trump required through executive order in January. Trump’s executive order did not address customs officers, and the Senate’s appropriations bill did not provide funding for any new hires for those positions.
The House-backed measure would provide revisions to the congressional mandate that CBP screen all applicants with a polygraph exam. It would adopt language with support in both chambers of Congress to allow law enforcement personnel and veterans who recently passed a polygraph to skip that step. It also authorizes recruitment and retention bonuses as well as special pay rates for jobs in “hard-to-fill locations.”
Democrats derided their Republican counterparts’ focus on staffing between ports of entry rather than at them, saying it would lead to long lines for travelers and importers. While the Senate spending bill would fully meet Trump’s request for Border Patrol hiring in 2018, the appropriations committee conceded the number was arbitrary and asked for ongoing reports from the agency.
“The committee notes that the request for new Border Patrol agents was not supported by a CBP-wide or DHS-wide, let alone federal governmentwide, review of workload and capability gaps that would be necessary to evaluate the benefits of the proposal as weighed against adding staff at the ports of entry,” the panel said in an explanatory statement on the measure. “CBP-wide analyses should inform daily decision-making, and longer-term resource planning at CBP.”