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Current funds ‘unlikely’ to sustain DHS border agency

The prospect of a supplemental funding bill for Customs and Border Protection surfaced during a House appropriations hearing

A Customs and Border Protection vehicle patrols the border fence in El Paso, Texas, in 2019.
A Customs and Border Protection vehicle patrols the border fence in El Paso, Texas, in 2019. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection appears “unlikely” to have enough money for the remainder of the fiscal year, a top House appropriator said Wednesday, raising the prospect of another supplemental funding bill as the country deals with high migration levels.

The Homeland Security Department’s law enforcement agency has experienced a shortfall in user fees normally collected for immigration and customs-related activities after international travel and border crossings plunged last year amid the pandemic.

House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard noted that Congress allocated $840 million in emergency funding for fiscal 2021, which runs through Sept. 30, to offset financial losses. She questioned whether that would be enough to keep the agency afloat.

“It now seems unlikely the funding we appropriated will be sufficient to carry the agency through the end of the fiscal year,” the California Democrat said during a hearing Wednesday.

Roybal-Allard asked interim CBP leader Troy Miller for his “candid assessment” on the agency’s “current fiscal posture.”

According to Miller, international air travel dropped by 95 percent in March 2020 as COVID-19 spread across the U.S., and international travel remains 70 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

“This sharp decline in volume directly impacts CBP’s budget,” Miller told lawmakers.

International air travelers pay roughly 94 percent of the agency’s user fees, which pay for about 40 percent of salaries for CBP field employees tasked with overseeing operations at ports of entry.

The revenue hit comes as CBP faces high numbers of migrants journeying to the U.S.-Mexico border, many of whom are fleeing violence and worsening conditions in Central America and elsewhere.

Border agents encountered migrants more than 178,000 times in April alone, including about 17,000 unaccompanied children. While the government has improved its processes to move children out of crowded border detention facilities, nearly 20,000 children remain in the care of Health and Human Services, which takes custody of the minors after they are processed by border agents.

Lawmakers and analysts have predicted that emergency funding may be necessary to provide CBP with enough resources for border agents to manage the increased migration levels.

Speaking to CQ Roll Call earlier this month, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who serves as vice chair of the Homeland Security spending panel, predicted the Biden administration would request supplemental funding for the border, as the Trump and Obama administrations did when facing high migration numbers in 2019 and 2014, respectively.

“I’ve always supported supplementals because I just know that anytime there’s a surge, there’s a lot of costs,” he said.

Roybal-Allard’s office didn’t provide additional details when asked about a possible supplemental funding request.

The White House released a preview of its funding request for fiscal 2022 in April and said it would release its full request on May 27.

While the preview included few details of the Biden administration’s vision for CBP funding, lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing stressed the need to fund improved technology at the border and boosted mental health services for CBP personnel.

Cuellar, who represents a border community in Texas, on Wednesday suggested that the $1.3 billion initially earmarked by Congress for border wall construction be kept in the Laredo area to fund technological improvements.

“What we want is everything but the border wall,” he said.

Miller replied that the final determination on the border wall funding issue was with DHS “as we speak” and the agency will “continue to look at what that calculus needs to be.”

Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., floated a proposal to create a “humanitarian response team” staffed by volunteers to support CBP during times when higher numbers of migrants seek asylum at the border.

Such a team would be modeled after existing disaster teams and would include social workers and child welfare professionals, he said.

Aguilar noted that members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have already raised the proposal to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Miller said the idea “isn’t something that I’ve looked at,” but he would “love to see the proposal and give you feedback.”

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