WASHINGTON - Border Patrol agents may not face furlough days if leaders of the House Appropriations Committee approve a Department of Homeland Security plan that would cut agents' overtime pay instead.
Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, wrote to the ranking members of the Appropriations Committee Tuesday and urged them to act on the proposal. He said an overtime pay cut could hurt border security but that heading off furloughs is a step in the right direction.
"I know that the department was faced with tough choices in how to implement the irresponsible, across-the-board cuts under sequestration," Barber wrote in his letter Tuesday. "But I believe it is imperative that funding is identified within the budget constraints to maintain security along the border."
The plan, which would shuffle funds within the agency, is among many "reprogramming requests" the committee has received from both Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection, a staffer said. The committee is processing the requests and will work to avoid furloughs, Appropriations spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said.
Customs originally said it would have to furlough Border Patrol agents and eliminate overtime pay to meet budget cuts mandated under the "sequestration," automatic spending cuts that were to kick in when lawmakers failed to reach a long-term budget deal.
Customs still faces $600 million in cuts because of the sequestration, said Jenny Burke, an agency spokeswoman.
Barber said he hopes the committee will go a step further and restore overtime pay, which is being cut by $56 million, according to a press release from his office.
Customs officials said they also hope that they and lawmakers can find a way to avoid effects of sequestration all together.
"We continue to encourage all parties to work together on a solution that can replace sequestration entirely and avoid the damaging impacts to CBP and critical services across the government," Burke said in an email.
Border Patrol agents work 10-hour shifts, overtime that is necessary so agents have time to travel to assignments that are often far away from their post, Barber said. If agents have to travel from Tucson to Green Valley or Nogales, that gives them less time for work in the field.
"Cuts to agents' overtime hours will leave Border Patrol stations understaffed and forward-operating bases unmanned," Barber wrote. "This creates windows of opportunity for criminals to cross our borders."
He said in an interview last week that "everyone who lives and works along the border is concerned" by the situation.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said overtime pay cuts affecting Border Patrol agents could result in more work for deputies in his county, which borders Mexico.
"They (agents) provide a lot of security, not only along the border, but among residents of Santa Cruz County," Estrada said.
He said resources on the border were already limited before talk of furloughs and cuts to overtime pay.
"Anytime that you have less boots on the ground it's going to have a negative impact," Estrada said.