Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) serves on the House-Senate Conference Committee on Homeland Security.
As one of the members tasked with resolving how to fund the Department of Homeland Security before the current continuing resolution expires on Feb. 15, I’m confident that we can reach an agreement — but only if we ignore President Trump’s repeated threats to shut down the government again or declare a national emergency, and instead focus on smart and effective border security. Unfortunately, what the Trump administration has requested is neither smart nor effective. And we’re not just talking about a wasteful, ineffective border wall.
For instance, it’s U.S. Customs officers — not the Border Patrol — who seize the vast majority of lethal narcotics coming into the United States at legal ports of entry. Yet the president is not asking for additional funding for Customs officers. Instead, the administration wants to hire 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents — 750 this year alone — even as southwest border apprehensions in recent years are at historic lows.
And how is the administration doing at meeting its Customs and Border Protection (CBP) hiring goals? The DHS Inspector General found that the Trump administration hastily signed a $297 million contract with Accenture to help recruit 7,500 CBP officers and agents — an outrageous rate of nearly $40,000 per hire. But 10 months into the contract, CBP had paid the firm more than $13 million and yet Accenture had processed just two accepted job offers.
What about the sophisticated technology systems we need to detect hidden contraband? In October 2017, when I met for the first time with the administration’s CBP commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, I asked him: What do you need to secure the border? The number one item on his wish list: more drive-through inspection systems, known as Z-portals. He did not mention Trump’s beloved border wall. Currently these inspection systems examine only 18 percent of arriving traffic and cargo. An investment in this kind of technology would help stop the drugs that are killing our kids. Yet the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget request includes only $44 million for Z-portals, even though it would cost $300 million to examine 100 percent of arriving traffic.
For four months in late 2017 and early 2018, I worked with my colleagues on a bipartisan agreement that included CBP’s top priorities, including increased funding for Z-portals, port of entry infrastructure and personnel, hiring and retention incentives, and more.
One year ago, a bipartisan majority of the Senate supported our agreement. But it failed to reach the 60 votes it needed because the Trump administration lobbied against it. On the same day, a bipartisan supermajority of the Senate rejected the president’s hard-line plan to cut legal immigration by 40 percent.
Then in December, Trump announced that he would no longer support the Senate or House Republican-led DHS spending bills because they didn’t include $5.7 billion for the wall which he promised Mexico would pay for. And what followed was the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has implemented unilateral — and in some cases illegal — measures that have destabilized Central America, encouraged more illegal migration, and made our border less secure while undermining American values.
The administration has proposed slashing regional security and humanitarian assistance by more than one third. It has terminated temporary protected status for El Salvador and Honduras, which will force more than a quarter-million people back to these countries. It has shut down legal avenues for vulnerable families and children who are fleeing persecution, such as the Central American Minors program. And it has sought to bar victims of gang and sexual violence from receiving asylum.
On Feb. 15, the president may be disappointed if we don’t give him everything he’s asked for, but if Congress did that, it would be a first in history. Unfortunately, as their starting position for negotiations, Republicans have presented the administration’s hard-line proposal, including billions of dollars in unaccountable wall funding, even though this plan was rejected by the Senate just last month.
The conference committee I’m serving on must use bipartisan judgment to make the right decision for the American taxpayers and for the safety of this country. Democrats stand ready to work with Republicans on a bipartisan basis, and I’m confident that we can reach an agreement by the end of the week if we ignore the threats coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and instead focus on smart and effective border security.