EL PASO, Texas -- Sequestration will hit the U.S-Mexico border hard.
Customs and Border Protection has proposed slashing $754 million from its budget to comply with automatic budget cuts. Congress has until Friday to come up with a plan to reduce the deficit or the cuts take effect.
“You’re going to have less people out in the field doing the job," said Stuart Harris, vice president of local 1929 of the National Border Patrol Council.
According to the union, its agents will bear the brunt of the proposed budget cutbacks, including mandatory 14-day furloughs, slashing overtime pay, and a hiring freeze.
“If these cuts go into effect, they’re going to damage communities, not just border patrol agents, communities,” said Harris.
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano toured some of those border communities recently to promote immigration reform by focusing on improved border security.
“We have more border patrol agents...boots on the ground than ever before,” said Napolitano during a stop in El Paso.
But Tuesday, she warned the cutbacks will force her agency to scale back along the southwest border.
"I don’t think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester," Napolitano said during a White House press briefing.
“By enacting the plan CBP intends to enact, what they’re doing is setting us back,” said Harris. ”We’re giving up all the gains that we’ve made thus far.”
The Border Patrol union says the scaled back patrols will reduce the force of 20,000 in the field to the equivalent of about 7,500 agents when furloughs, attrition and lost overtime are combined.
The reduction in overtime pay will hit the Border Patrol hardest.
“If you’re out in the field tracking a group of drug smugglers you need to stay on that trail until you can make that apprehension,” said Harris.
Napolitano says the proposed cutbacks will also affect staffing at ports where officers inspect cargo and could lead to much longer lines at busy border crossings.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE has released hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention to save money as sequestration looms.
"Over the last week, ICE has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention," said ICE Deputy Press Secretary Gillian Christensen.
Those immigrants still face deportation proceedings, but since they are "lower priority" non-criminal cases, ICE can save on detention costs by allowing the individuals to wait at home until they appear before an immigration judge. El Paso is among the cities that have released people facing immigration charges.
Along the border, the big spending cuts will also be felt in the small towns where Border Patrol agents often bolster local law enforcement.
“In a lot of the smaller towns they rely on the Border Patrol for their backup,” said Harris.