How much border security does $600 million buy?

Short answer:  Not too much.

Long answer:  Congress stood on its head to pass a supplemental $600 million border security bill yesterday, with two Senators returning to adopt the provision with unanimous consent.  Election-year politics has a lot to do with the legislative consensus.  But what exactly did the bill do?

It funds about 1000 new Border Patrol agents, adding to the 20 thousand already on the force.  That’s a continuation of Bush Administration policies, which roughly doubled the size of the Border Patrol from 10 to 20 thousand over eight years.  A five percent increase in border staffing won’t make a big difference, but it’s better than the Obama administration’s initial budget, which proposed to cut the size of the force by one percent.   It also adds around 250 new officers at ports of entry – the legal crossing points from Mexico.  That makes sense.  As illegal crossings get harder, smuggling through the ports of entry will increase, and these officers will be needed.

The bill adds money for a couple more drones, again following Bush Administration policy.  Drones have value, but I can’t help wondering how much these will add.  The real problem in using them has been the extreme reluctance of the FAA to allow UAV flights along the border (or anywhere else, for that matter).

Surprisingly, a third of the money goes to the Justice Department, mainly to fund FBI, DEA, and ATF investigations of drugs and guns.  There certainly is value in launching more crossborder investigations of Mexican organized crime, but in my experience, law enforcement agencies sometimes get money by selling the crime of the month, and there’s no guarantee that the increased funding will actually result in increased attention to that crime.  My guess is that Sen. Schumer, with his Judiciary Committee background, is just more open to Justice Department appeals for funds than to DHS appeals.  ICE, for example, is responsible for crossborder crime and immigration enforcement, but it gets no more of a boost in funding than the Justice components, and I hear it’s been told that the funds are not to be used for immigration enforcement, just for drug and money smuggling.  That, of course, reflects the deep animus in the advocacy community toward immigration enforcement away from the border; the advocates weren’t happy with added border enforcement, but they would have erupted if the administration and Congress had added funds for interior enforcement.

Much was made of the fact that these increases were “paid for.”  That’s true, sort of.  It looks as though a lot of it was “paid for” by canceling hundreds of millions of dollars in fence-building and air security spending.  In addition, Congress is claiming a lot of new revenue by charging an extra $2,000 for H-1B visas issued to companies that mainly depend on immigrant labor to carry out jobs in the US.  There’s a policy case for discouraging that kind of company (although the more discouraging we do, the less “paid for” this bill becomes).  Established US companies tend to use H-1B visas to hire college and postgraduate workers to fill particular slots and to try out employees for permanent employment.  The mainly Indian companies that rely heavily on H-1B labor seem to be outsourcing companies, and the anecdotal claim is that they use the visas to bring in workers from India who work alongside US workers and learn to do their jobs, then return to India to do the US workers’ jobs in India.  If you were making policy in the middle of a bad recession, you might prefer the first use of H-1B visas to the second.

But there could easily be a WTO challenge to the new fee.  In a dumb move that hasn’t recently been repeated, the US long ago agreed at the  WTO that it would always allow at least 65,000 H-1B visa holders to enter the country.  I would not be surprised to see India challenge the new fee on a couple of WTO grounds – that it discriminates in practice against foreign companies and that it effectively withdraws – or at least improperly burdens — the binding US commitment to admit 65 thousand workers (after all, India will argue, no one would think the US was living up to its WTO commitment if it raised H-1B visa fees to $1 million apiece).  If so, there’s a real possibility that a WTO dispute resolution panel will force the US to drop the fee, and perhaps any visa fees not directly related to the cost of issuing the visas.  That will show just how dumb it was to add immigration issues to trade negotiations.  But the pressure to make more such concessions continues.  And as USTR runs out of trade concessions that other countries want, it is increasingly looking to make concessions in areas of policy whose social consequences it doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about.

UPDATE:  Typos fixed; parenthetical added