U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists inspects flowers for harmful pests at the Miami International Airport on Feb. 12. Agency officials said they would have to repurpose funds without a budget supplement from Congress.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists inspects flowers for harmful pests at the Miami International Airport on Feb. 12. Agency officials said they would have to repurpose funds without a budget supplement from Congress. CHANDAN KHANNA / Getty Images

DHS to slash operations, reshuffle workforce without additional funds, agency warns

The department becomes the latest in the Biden administration to sound the alarm over the impact of budget shortfalls.

The Homeland Security Department is preparing to potentially move some employees from their primary functions and reprogram funds to address a budget shortfall, the agency said on Wednesday, sending out a warning to lawmakers that their inaction could harm national security. 

The Biden administration is imploring Congress to provide more funds throughout DHS to avoid the slashing of operations. Among the expected cut backs would be upgrades to ports of entry and border surveillance technology, shelter services for migrant arrivals, deportation rates and asylum processing. 

“The administration has repeatedly requested additional resources for DHS’ vital missions on the southwest border and Congress has chronically underfunded them,” a department spokesperson said. “Most recently, Congress rejected the bipartisan national security bill out of hand, which will put at risk DHS’s current removal operations, put further strain on our already overtaxed workforce and make it harder to catch fentanyl at ports of entry.”

The Senate rejected the bipartisan measure that took months to negotiate after former President Trump and House Republicans put pressure on the lawmakers to vote against the restrictive immigration reform and border security bill. The measure included $18 billion for components throughout DHS, including for the hiring of thousands of new employees. 

“Without adequate funding for CBP, ICE and USCIS, the department will have to reprogram or pull resources from other efforts,” the DHS spokesperson said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would have to reassign hundreds of personnel from their normal duties to conduct initial screenings of new migrant arrivals, the spokesperson added. That would take them away from adjudicating green cards and addressing the asylum backlog, leading to longer wait times for the applicants. USCIS just last week announced it had reduced its total backlog for the first time in a decade. It completed 10 million cases in fiscal 2023, an all-time record, reducing its overall number of pending cases by 15%. 

UCSIS is still struggling to dig out from a hiring freeze it implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the agency threatened to furlough most of its workers as normal funds collected through fees dried up. Congress eventually intervened, but not before a longstanding hiring pause depleted the agency. The border measure would have provided USCIS with 4,300 asylum officers, quintupling that part of the agency’s workforce, while also adding new responsibilities. 

Without an injection of funding, Immigration and Customs Enforcement would have to scale back its current pace of border and removal operations. ICE in fiscal 2023 removed more than 140,000 individuals and turned away nearly 63,000 migrants when the Title 42 policy remained in effect, though a spokesperson said it would no longer be able to sustain that ramped-up operational capacity. Under the bipartisan border deal, ICE would have received $7.6 billion and 1,200 new employees. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday ICE is considering releasing thousands of detained immigrants as it can no longer afford to hold 38,000 individuals. 

“A reduction in ICE operations would significantly harm border security, national security and public safety,” the DHS spokesperson said. 

Customs and Border Protection would repurpose funds away from “nonessential areas,” which DHS said would require sacrifices to priority capital investments. 

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said Republicans were playing “political games” rather than addressing an urgent matter.

“Because Republicans refuse to actually govern and have stated they won’t provide another dime to DHS, ICE will soon be forced to reduce operations and release significant numbers of detainees,” Thompson said. “If it is a crisis at the border, then Republicans must agree to fix it now.” 

Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., who chairs the panel and led the effort to impeach DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, called the administration’s warnings “absurd,” accusing ICE of letting bed space for detained migrants go unused and noting the agency proposed cutting its detention capacity in its fiscal 2024 budget proposal. 

“Instead of treating enforcement as a hostage negotiation—‘give us more money or else’—Secretary Mayorkas should just do his job and follow the law,” Green said. 

DHS, like all agencies, is currently operating under a continuing resolution that is funding it at fiscal 2023 levels. That is set to expire March 8 as lawmakers negotiate final appropriations bills, though overall spending throughout government will stay flat. The Senate this week advanced a supplemental spending package that stripped out all funding initially included for DHS. 

The department has become the latest of several in the Biden administration to warn the uncertainty of the CR and expected flat funding environment is negatively impacting operations. Facilities throughout the Veterans Affairs Department are restricting hiring as they deal with budget shortfalls. The Social Security Administration told Congress at the start of the fiscal year it had to freeze hiring and overtime, with leaders noting the agency has been underresourced for a decade. 

Once Congress completes the full-year appropriations process, agencies across government will be dealing with budget constraints due to a spending agreement originally negotiated by the White House and House Republicans.