Monday, September 22, 2008

Border fence in funding limbo

Brownsville Herald
September 21, 2008

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has run out of money to build remaining segments of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere, and the project already is $400 million over budget.

Unexpected construction costs and legal holdups have paralyzed construction just weeks after DHS broke ground in the Valley.

A Sept. 10 Government Accountability Office report said the average cost of fencing has increased more than 40 percent this year.

With 17 miles of fencing in Brownsville "on deck," according to DHS officials, the city's fate now could lie in the hands of a single congressman charged with approving a federal funding request.

DHS can redirect some funding without approval, by cutting down other border security expenditures to salvage $238 million for fencing.

But to secure an additional $140 million, DHS will need the approval of U.S. Rep. David Price, D-NC, chairman of the Sub-Committee on Homeland Security.

Without Price's approval, the border fence likely will remain unfinished at the end of 2008.

If Congress does not comply, "We're out of money and operations will stop," Customs and Border Protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham told the House Homeland Security Committee on Sept. 10.

Price voted against the Secure Fence Act of 2006 and against a 2007 amendment allotting an additional $89 million for border fencing, infrastructure, and technology.

"I am very concerned about the rapidly escalating costs of border fencing and want to be sure that CBP is being a wise steward of taxpayer dollars," Price said in a statement. "Because the reprogramming would reduce non-fencing activities, including the hiring of Border Patrol personnel, I also want to be sure that the agency is not robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Currently, 341 miles of a proposed 670 miles of new fencing are in place along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

Regardless of the current funding scenario, DHS spokeswoman Angela Rocha said the department "is planning at this time to build the fence in the Brownsville area."

Bids to build segments of the fence in Cameron County have been received but contracts have not yet been awarded.

Congressmen along the Southwest border are unwilling to accept that fencing is a foregone conclusion in their districts. Last week, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, wrote a letter to Price, urging him to deny DHS' reprogramming request. Five congressmen along the southwest border, including U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, signed on.

"We find it irresponsible that the Bush Administration continues to ask Congress for additional funding to finish a fence which will do little to improve the security of our nation," the letter states. "As original opponents of the Secure Fence Act, we ask that your committee block the recent reprogramming request."

Staff at Price's office would not comment on when the reprogramming request will either be approved or denied. But Jean-Louise Beard, Price's chief of staff, denied DHS' assertion that the request was a routine measure.

"This one is out of the ordinary not only because it involves the border fence, which has been very controversial," Beard said, "but also because the request is much larger than the norm and has come very late in the fiscal year."

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