By Lisa Mascaro and Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Surveillance drones that hunt drug smugglers along the Mexican border could soon be grounded. Installation of pole-top cameras and ground sensors to intercept illegal crossings might be delayed.
About $44 million has already been diverted from the government’s health-related accounts, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to pay for food, beds, clothing and medical care for the crush of unaccompanied minors who have crossed the Southwestern border.
And that’s just the beginning.
With the expected failure of Congress to agree Thursday on emergency funds to cope with the border crisis, the Obama administration is shifting an additional $94 million from other government programs and accounts — some far removed from the immigration debate — to meet the swelling costs of caring for the children through the summer, according to congressional aides.
Congress is scheduled to leave town Thursday for a five-week break without acting on the president’s request for $3.7 billion in emergency funding or agreeing on an alternative.
But border agencies say their existing budgets — sapped by added costs from overtime, detention and transportation for the children, more than 57,000 of whom have arrived since October — will start running dry before lawmakers get back in September.
Administration officials warn that the price of congressional inaction will be steep, estimating the cost of caring for each immigrant youth runs between $250 and $1,000 a day.
“Scary,” Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, said about the agencies’ budget outlook.
On Wednesday, officials at the Office of Management and Budget were putting together plans to scrounge up funds. But without congressional approval, President Barack Obama is limited to moving around money only in small amounts. That probably means the redistribution will touch many different programs — a distressing prospect for officials in vulnerable agencies.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has already diverted funds from immigration enforcement, and is now reviewing other programs in what he has described as a “dramatic” effort to locate money. Another casualty of the budget crunch might be new X-ray screening equipment to speed up truck cargo traffic at the border, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said in a recent interview.
“We have huge investments in technology to speed up people traveling lawfully into the U.S. and (for) cargo advancement,” Kerlikowske said. “There is money in those programs, but we would have to reprogram to keep up with the money that is now being spent on the Southwest border.”
Without help from Congress, Johnson said last week at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, “we will run out of money to deal with this.” Earlier this month, he warned lawmakers of a “harsh” diversion of resources “that will take money away from some vital homeland security programs I am sure members of this committee care a lot about.”
Administration officials say existing funding will dry up by mid-August for the Homeland Security Department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Customs and Border Protection, which has racked up heavy overtime costs as Border Patrol agents become de facto child-care providers, expects to end the fiscal year on Sept. 30 with a $400 million shortfall.
The overwhelmed Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is providing food, shelter and medical care for the children, most of whom fled violence in Central America, is similarly on track to run out of money. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, who oversees the office, warned that some children were enduring “unthinkable conditions.”
A bipartisan coalition of senators Wednesday advanced a Democratic-led proposal for $2.7 billion in emergency funds, pared down from the president’s request but still much more than the $659 million being considered by Republicans in the House. But neither plan is expected to clear both chambers before Congress breaks.
Some lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill suggested the budget emergency was being exaggerated by the White House and that departments could simply shift money around as a stopgap. They said the need had ebbed somewhat because the number of children arriving at the border had declined by half this month.
“There’s not a mood of urgency,” said Rep. Steve King, a conservative Republican from Iowa who had just returned from a weekend visit to the border.
But others warned that costs would only rise over time and spread to other government operations. “Forcing the administration to move money around to make up the shortfall until an agreement is reached and signed into law will undoubtedly affect the Department of Homeland Security’s other critical operations,” said an aide to Senator Thomas R. Carper (D-DE), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.
On Wednesday, Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD), chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, warned that money to address the border crisis may have to be pulled from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the hurricane season approaches.
“The failure to act does not save money for the taxpayer,” she said at a recent hearing on the legislation.
The problem becomes a circular one: Because Congress has not approved extra money for immigration judges to process the cases, children remain in custody at the border, cared for by Border Patrol officers, or in homes with relatives or community groups that are funded by Health and Human Services.
Burwell said the emergency housing situation was not as cost-effective as it would be to provide more permanent facilities.
“This is depressingly typical,” said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog organization. “Things stop and start, and the failure to make longer-term strategic decisions about what we’re going to do — and to do everything by short-term crisis management — is the way budgeting has devolved.”
Photo: Crazy George via Flickr