Janet Napolitano

Presser on Sequestration Impacts on the DHS

delivered 25 February 2013, White House, Washington, D.C.

Audio mp3 of Address


I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the impacts of sequestration on the operations of the Department of Homeland Security.  As a primer, you know, DHS has a very broad mission and we touch almost every aspect of the economy.  We secure the aviation sector.  We screen two million domestic air travelers a day.  We protect our borders, our ports of entry.  We facilitate legitimate travel and trade.  Last year, our CBP officers processed more than 350 million people and processed over $2.3 trillion in trade.  We enforce the immigration laws.  We partner with the private sector to protect critical infrastructure.  We work with states and local communities to prepare for and respond to disasters of all types, like Hurricane Sandy, while supporting recovery and rebuilding.

Put simply, the automatic budget reduction mandated by sequestration would be disruptive and destructive to our nationís security and economy.  It would negatively affect the mission readiness and capabilities of the men and women on our frontlines.  It would undermine the significant progress weíve made over the past 10 years to build the nationís preparedness and resiliency. 

Perhaps most critically, it would have serious consequences to the flow of trade and travel at our nationís ports of entry.  We will have to begin to furlough customs and border protection officers who staff those ports.  At the major international airports, we will be limited in accepting new international flights, and average wait times to clear customs will increase by as much as 50 percent.  And at our busiest airports like Newark and JFK, LAX and OíHare, peak wait times, which can reach over two hours, could easily grow to four hours or more.  Such delays will cause thousands of missed-passenger connections daily, with economic consequences at both the local and the national levels.

Reductions in overtime and hiring freezes at our Transportation Security officers will increase domestic passenger wait times at our busiest airports.

On the Southwest border, our biggest land ports could face waits of up to five hours, functionally closing these ports during core hours.

At our seaports, delays in container examinations would increase to up to five days, resulting in increased cost to the trade community and reduced availability of consumer goods and raw materials.  Mid-sized and smaller ports would experience constrained hours of operation, affecting local cross-border communities.

At our cruise terminals, processing times could increase up to six hours causing passengers there, as well, to miss connecting flights, delayed trips, and increase their costs.

Sequestration will have serious consequences for our other missions, as well.  As I said, CBP will have to furlough all of its employees, reduce overtime, and eliminate hiring to backfill positions, decreasing the number of hours our Border Patrol has to operate between the ports of entry by up to 5,000 Border Patrol agents.

The Coast Guard will reduce its presence in the Arctic by a third.  We will curtail our air and surface operations by more than 25 percent, affecting management of the nationís waterways, as well as fisheries enforcement, drug interdiction and migrant interdiction.

Under sequestration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also part of DHS, will be forced to reduce detention and removal and would not be able to maintain the 34,000 detention beds as required by Congress.  It would also reduce our investigative activities in areas like human smuggling and commercial trade fraud.

In terms of our nationís disaster preparedness response and recovery efforts, it would reduce the Disaster Relief Fund by nearly $1 billion, potentially affecting survivors recovering from Hurricane Sandy, the tornadoes in places like Tuscaloosa and Joplin, and other major disasters across the country. 

And Homeland Security grant funding would be reduced to its lowest level in seven years, leading to potential layoffs of state and local emergency personnel across the country.

Let me close by saying this.  Threats from terrorism and the need to respond and recover from natural disasters do not diminish because of budget cuts.  Even in the current fiscal climate, we do not have the luxury of making significant reductions to our capabilities without significant impacts.  We will work to continue to preserve our frontline priorities as best we can, but no amount of planning can mitigate the negative effects of sequestration.

So as we approach the 1st of March, I join with all of my other colleagues and with the governors, who we just heard outside, to ask the Congress to prevent sequestration in order to maintain the safety, security, and resiliency of the country.

Thank you.

MR. CARNEY:  Weíll take some questions for the Secretary.

Q    Thank you.  Secretary, you were talking about reduced hours of Border Patrol and reduced personnel at the nationís ports.  Are you saying that the nation will be less secure at the border and at its ports as a result of the cuts?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  No.  What weíre going to have to do in terms of -- at the actual ports of entry, weíre going to have to continue to check for contraband, for potential terrorists and the like, passengers as well as containers and other cargo.  So the procedures will be the same, but weíll have fewer people able to do them, so the lines are going to get longer.

And between the ports, we are going to see a reduction in Border Patrol resources between the ports of entry.  So itís really a very -- as I said last week at a hearing, itís almost an out-of-body experience.  Last week I was testifying in the Congress before the Judiciary Committee on the need for immigration reform, and I was being asked, what are we doing to strengthen security at the border.  And the very next day -- and we have put record amounts of resources into the border and our border security.  The very next day, I was in the Appropriations Committee saying, but youíre taking -- rolling it all back through sequestration.  So itís really a --

Q    But doesnít that mean the border is less secure if youíre taking away hours of --

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Between the ports of entry, if you reduce the number of Border Patrol agents, I think you can say, yes, it does affect our ability to keep out illegal migrants and others trying to enter the country.

MR. CARNEY:  Yes, Matt.

Q    So you painted a dire picture and you mentioned that, as you were closing, the threat of terrorism doesnít wait for these kind of legislative roadblocks.  So with all the diminished capability that youíve described, how could the country not face a greater threat of suffering a terrorist attack under these circumstances in the months to come?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Weíre going to do -- in this fiscal environment where we go to sequestration and possible shutdown and all the rest, always lacking a budget in regular order so that we canít effectively manage and plan, we will always put a priority on maintaining the safety of the American people.  But what that is going to require, and the impacts people are going to see -- and they will build over the next several weeks; you wonít see them immediately like a shutdown, but it will accrue over the next few weeks -- is that lines, procedures, wait times are all going to get longer. 

So, for example, if youíre traveling by air, youíre going to have to start getting to the airport earlier.  And if youíre trying to make a connecting flight, youíre going to have to make your arrangements to give you greater time with which to do that.  And if youíre trying to bring cargo over a land port of entry, youíre going to have to prepare for some very long lines.

Q    But will there or will there not be a greater threat of a terrorist attack?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Well, thereís always a threat.  Weíre going to do everything we can to minimize that risk.  But the sequester makes it awfully, awfully tough.

MR. CARNEY:  Major.

Q    How soon?  You said we wouldnít see these effects right away.  Is this a month, two months, three months?  As you look at your budgets and how to put this through in the furlough process, need 30 days notification, and begin to cycle through, when do the American public actually feel what youíre describing today?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  I think -- because itís not all about furloughs, itís also not being able to backfill over time and the like, and that starts immediately.  But I think the public will really begin to feel it in the next few weeks.  So it will be accruing over the next few weeks.  And if you heard Secretary LaHood on Friday talking about the effect on the FAA, between the effect on the FAA and the effect on the TSA and the CBP, you really have a perfect storm in terms of the ability to move around the country.

Q    And once it starts, do you think the effects will become exponential?  I mean, theyíll get worse and worse and worse?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Yes.  It will be like a rolling ball.  It will keep growing.


Q    Iíve heard kind of different answers.  So is the country going to be less safe after sequester, in your opinion, as somebody whoís all over this issue for the last four years?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Look, I donít think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester as without sequester.  Weíre going to do and are doing everything we can within the limits sequester gives us.  But, as I was mentioning earlier, if you have 5,000 fewer Border Patrol hours -- or agents, you have 5,000 fewer Border Patrol agents.  That has a real impact.

Q    So you think there will be more illegal immigrants coming in, and thereís a greater threat that terrorists could actually launch an attack?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Weíve spent the last four years with the Congress putting record amounts of personnel down at the Southwest border.  And I know that border really well.  I mean, I was the U.S. Attorney in Arizona, the Attorney General, the Governor.  Iím from New Mexico, originally.  Iíve lived at the border and worked at the border my whole life.  And that border now is as secure as itís been in the last two decades.  It doesnít mean we donít have more to do.  Thereís always more to do.  But itís really been an unprecedented historic effort. 

And now, because of a budget impasse, to have to begin to look at rolling back those agents and slowing hiring, and getting rid of overtime -- which we use a lot between the ports of entry -- that will have a real impact.

Q    Secretary Napolitano, just a few moments ago, Governor Jindal from Louisiana was outside and he accused the President of trying to scare people.  Can you just say right here for the record that you are not here just trying to scare people?  That what youíre saying has to happen is a necessity as a result of these cuts?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Yes, Iím not here to scare people.  Iím here to inform, and also to let people begin to plan -- because theyíre going to see these impacts in their daily lives, and theyíre going to have to adjust and make their arrangements accordingly.  And it wonít be like a shutdown, where itís like turning off the light switch.  But all I can say for folks is these are the effects that will accrue.  Please donít yell at the customs officer or the TSO officer because the lines are long.  The lines over the next few weeks are going to start to lengthen in some dramatic ways in parts of the country.

Q    Because the Governor raised the question -- why canít you just cut 3 percent out of your budget without having these devastating impacts, whether it be on aviation over at the FAA or on security at Homeland Security.  Why not?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Well, thatís not the way sequester works.  Sequester works account by account by account, and you donít just take $85 billion out of the economy over six months and not expect to see real impacts -- because thereís only certain amounts of things we can cut.  And we are personnel-heavy.  We secure air, land, and sea borders.  Weíre out in the maritime environment.  Weíre making sure that disaster relief is flowing when we need it.  So these effects are the kinds of things people are going to see and they need to be able to plan for.  So my purpose here today is just to make very clear what these impacts are likely going to be unless and until Congress resolves the sequester.

MR. CARNEY:  Peter, then Ari.

Q    Secretary Napolitano, just to confirm -- the total number of dollars that will be taken from your department as a result of sequester is what?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Weíll give you the total number.  It keeps changing.

Q    Roughly?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  What would you say -- for all of DHS --

Q    On sequester.

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  About 5 percent. 

Q    Okay.

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  The reason Iím fluctuating is because it was 6 percent last week and because of adjustments.

Q    And then in real dollars that is roughly?


Q    Billions.  Are there are other places -- aside from the way that sequester works, are there other places where you could cut back in the billions of dollars to find the cuts necessary to accomplish spending cuts that America, Republicans insist need?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Look, we began in 2009 going through our department, finding places where we could cut and avoid costs to streamline our efforts as much as we can.  We actually had employees involved in this because theyíre the ones that oftentimes see best places where we can save and conserve.  Weíve already identified over $4 billion in those kinds of cuts.  We are constantly working, looking to see how we can effectively, efficiently carry out all the different missions that are located under one umbrella, which is DHS.  So yes, we have cut billions already.

Q    And there are $4 billion more, are you suggesting?  Or thereís --

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  We have already cut four [billion] but weíre always looking for cuts and places where, for example, we can use technology as a force multiplier; places where we can perhaps use some of the leftover DOD equipment and put it into use for some of our missions. 

But we continue to have -- as I said before, there are evolving terrorist threats.  They don't go away.  Weíre now dealing with the emerging cybersecurity threat.  And when I say emerging, it really is here.  But we have huge responsibilities under that now, which are somewhat new.  And Mother Nature doesn't go away because of a budget cycle.  So we have to deal with all of that simultaneously.

Q    So, basically, we can see if there were more flexibility in a situation other than the sequester, there would be other places for you to cut, but just not under the present formula?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Under the present formula, it is just a big, broad brush that treats everything as if itís equivalent.  Thereís no prioritization.  Thereís no planning.  Thereís no management associated with it.  And as I said before, look, people don't want to be less safe.  They don't want to be less secure.  They want to think that we are securing the borders.  They want to believe weíre enforcing the immigration laws.  They want to make sure that if thereís a disaster, there could be a prompt and effective response.  These are things people expect out of the government and for us to be able to provide. 

So with those expectations and meeting them, where the sequester really hits then is, okay, how do we do that when you have a cut that says, well, you got to reduce your CBP hours; and you got to reduce overtime here; and you can't pay for this over there.  That's what weíre dealing with.


Q    You talked about undoing some of the progress that's been made over the last decade.  If sequester lasts a few weeks or a few months, are there long-term consequences that will remain?  Or is all of the damage youíre describing damage that can be very quickly undone if funding returns to where itís supposed to be?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  That's hard to say.  Itís hard to say because you have to actually see what is going to happen.  All I can say is, look, weíre doing our very best to minimize the impacts of sequester.  But thereís only so much I can do.  Iím supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration.  How do I pay for those?  We want to maintain 22,000-some odd Border Patrol agents.  I got to be able to pay their salaries.  We need to have overtime for our port officers because we already have a shortage of port officers. 

I mean, I was Miami last week at the airport, and I heard a lot from the Mayor and others in that part of Florida about long wait times and from the cruise industry about their long wait times.  And itís very hard to work on that and try to fix that when we are probably and likely to see in the Miami area an extension of wait times.  So weíll do everything we can to minimize the impact, but there is only so much I can do. 

We have to protect the safety of the American people the best we can.  Weíre committed to doing that, but that means a lot of inconvenience at a minimum, plus some, I think, true economic loss, plus rolling back some of our progress at the Southwest border.  These are all things weíre going to see.

MR. CARNEY:  Alexis.

Q    Governor, I wanted to ask you, you were just mentioning that certain statute, certain law requires you to maintain certain levels -- detention beds being an example.  If this particular -- the sequestration part of the law is encouraging or compels the Department to violate another law, is there anything that you can do through the courts or legally to supersede one statute for another?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Look, as the Secretary, Iím working with all of these components to do the best we can to secure the public, right?  And now Iím put between the rock and the hard place, and I shouldnít have to go to court for Congress to figure out a budget for the Department of Homeland Security and for the federal government at large.  We can do this in a balanced way.  We can do this in a balanced way that allows us to rein in spending, make logical cuts and cost avoidances where possible, and close tax loopholes so that we get some revenue into the system.  There is a balanced approach that's available. 

But in the absence of the ability to come together and resolve that, what this means is itís going to fall very heavily -- and people will see it -- this is not -- sequester is a concept that's been floating around in the air, but it will unfortunately have real consequences people will see over time.

Q    So thereís no question you have to honor this?  You have no legal leeway?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Not that Iím informed of.

MR. CARNEY:  April, then Zach, then Jon.

Q    Secretary Napolitano, without sequester we are an open society.  But with the sequester, if it happens March 1st, how vulnerable would this nation be to possibilities of terrorism?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Well, I think if you look at the combination of the effect on DHS, on the Department of Justice and on the Department of Defense, we are having real impacts on the robustness of our defensive posture.  And there are things that we will not be able to do as well, like secure between the ports of entry on the land borders, as we would do without sequester.

In terms of maritime activities, protecting the coasts, as we do with the Coast Guard, weíre looking at a 25-percent reduction because we have to accomplish the cut between now and the end of the fiscal year, so we have seven months to accomplish the cut.

Q    So there is a vulnerability?


MR. CARNEY:  Zach, then Jon.

Q    Secretary Napolitano, you mentioned that Americans would face longer lines, longer waits.  Couldnít you say that's just part of life in an America that needs to pull in its budget, needs to be more disciplined?  Isnít that a way that Americans just have to contribute towards deficit reduction, wait a little bit longer?  Is that so bad?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  I think youíre minimizing what people are likely to see, and I think that question minimizes the impact on the economy, for example.  When you slow down the inspection of containers by up to five days -- we work on a real-time inventory type of economy -- you slow down that global economy, the trade that comes into the country and leaves the country, that translates into lots and lots of jobs -- good-paying jobs.  And those are going to be impacted.

When people can't travel and get to where they need to go for business or personal reasons, that has a real impact.  Americans are all contributing.  We understand that.  But this is not the way to do it, and the sequester is about as illogical a process as you could possibly conceive.

Q    So containers arenít hours, they're days?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Days.  In some ports, it will be days.

Q    Five days.



Q    Just two very quick follow-ups.  We heard from Bobby Jindal just a few minutes ago.  Governor Jindal says that the administration is scaring people.  He says the President is scaring people.  Is that just wrong?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  I think itís wrong.  I mean if people are scared, itís because the full impact of this is finally being made evident, and so people now are saying, oh, my gosh, what do I need to do?  Well, people need to be able to plan.  They need to know what to expect.  It wonít happen, as I said, like the flick of a light switch but it will accrue over the next weeks, and that is why itís so important Congress come to the table, reach a balanced approach, so we can get this budget impasse behind us and get on with the work of the country.

Q    Just to follow up on Peterís question -- I know you want a balanced approach and some tax revenues, I understand that fully -- but if you had flexibility to make these cuts, the billions of dollars you mentioned, any way you wanted in your budget, could you lessen the impact?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  We could a little bit on the margins.  But the plain fact of the matter is they fall at such a heavy level, because weíre so personnel-rich as a Department, that people would still experience the kinds of things that Iíve just described.

MR. CARNEY:  Donovan, and then Chris.

Q    Thanks.  I just wanted to clear something up.  Earlier you said -- someone asked if our country would be less secure and you said no, the procedures will be the same but you have fewer people to do them so the lines will be longer.


Q    But then April just asked you if our vulnerability to a terror attack will increase and you said yes.  Can we just clear up --

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  Yes.  At the ports, where people -- where weíre governing cargo and passengers, we will do the same checks.  Theyíre very important.  It will take longer. 

What I was particularly referencing, however, was the rollback in Border Patrol agent time.  And itís just common sense, if you roll that back, you make between the ports of entry less secure than the record security that has been there for the last years.  And quite frankly, as we move into the discussion of immigration reform -- and that system needs comprehensive change and reform -- we all want to begin with saying, look, the border must be secure and it must be sustained in its security.

MR. CARNEY:  Chris, and then weíll take one more and let the Secretary go.

Q    I have a question on a different topic.  As you know, the Defense of Marriage Act is under review right now before the Supreme Court.  And in anticipation of that ruling, LGBT advocates have been calling on you to place in advance marriage-based green card applications for married same-sex couples.  I was wondering if this policy is under consideration right now.

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  The legal advice we have received is that we canít put it in advance because DOMA remains the law.  Weíd like to see that law overturned.  In practical terms, however, most of those cases fall within very, very low priority in terms of what weíve done over the last years, which is to build priorities into immigration enforcement so weíre not seeing impracticality those deportations occur.

Q    But back in in 2009, you directed USCIS to suspend adjudication of visa petitions and adjustment applications for immigrant widows of U.S. citizens.  If you can do this policy for widows, why canít you do it for foreign nationals in same-sex marriages?


MR. CARNEY:  Yes, sir, last question for the Secretary.

Q    Secretary Napolitano, I just want to -- on the economy loss again, considering the $1.5 billion daily trade relationship with Canada, for instance, how will this impact the relationship -- the sequestration?  And also, when you say, I want people to begin to plan, have you been in contact with your Canadian counterpart, security-wise, to discuss how they could take some part of the work?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO:  I havenít been in touch with my counterpart.  I donít know whether the acting commissioner of customs has been.  But as I said in my opening remarks, we do $2.3 trillion worth of trade a year through customs and border protection.  And Canada is our largest trading partner.  Mexico is probably our third-largest trading partner.  That translates into hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States.  One of the chief complaints I receive whenever I travel to either border is it takes too long to move the trucks across; it takes too long for people in passenger vehicles to get through. And all I can tell you is that with sequestration, that situation is not going to improve, itís going to go backwards.

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