May 15, 2009
By Kimberly Colander
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON - Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napoli-tano defended the depart-ment’s proposed budget for next year to two congressional committees Wednesday.
The Department of Homeland Security is requesting $55.1 billion, about $2 billion more than this year’s budget, a 5 percent increase.
The most critical concerns of the department are terrorism, U.S. border patrol, immigration and disaster relief, Napolitano told the House Committee on Homeland Security.
Committee members said their core concerns are border patrol, emergency response and the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
“Protecting the American people from terrorist threats is the funding purpose of the department,” Napolitano said.
DHS is asking for more than $565 million to accelerate the program at every airport in the nation to screen each bag for explosives.
The committee said more should be done to secure the nation’s borders. Of the 3,000 mile border with Mexico, only 815 miles are secured by some type of fence. The committee asked DHS to notify them about what it needs to properly secure the border. The committee also advised Napolitano that the budget should give more attention to the drug smuggling cartels in Mexico.
Napolitano said the department wants an increase of $26.1 million to add 44 Border Patrol agents to help stop firearms and cash from being smuggled into Mexico. The Mexican government has complained that guns and cash from the U.S. have contributed to violence along the border.
An increase of $70 million would pay for 349 agents, analysts and investigators at Immigration and Customs Enforcement to step up enforcement along the border and for better coordination with the Mexican government.
A $20 million increase would pay for “improved situational awareness along the northern border” with Canada.
The members of the House committee agreed that the department’s budget should provide more funds to protect the country from terrorist attacks.
DHS asked for more money so it could be better prepared for natural or manmade disasters. The budget proposes doubling this program from this year’s $210 million to $420 million for a more stable relief fund.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the committee chair, said Napolitano “managed to submit a very comprehensive budget that answers a lot of questions.”
When committee members strayed from the 2010 budget to ask about other issues involving DHS, Napolitano said she was there only to testify about the budget. She promised to discuss other subjects at a another time, adding some would need to be discussed in a closed session.
Committee members said the detention center at Guantanamo Bay is a major concern. Some detainees may be released into the U.S., which disturbed several of the members. They asked where the prisoners would be released, but Napolitano was unable to provide an answer.