The automatic US budget reduction mandated by sequestration would be "disruptive and destructive to our nation's security and economy," US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Director Janet Napolitano said on Monday.
"It would negatively affect the mission readiness and capabilities of the men and women on our front lines and would undermine the significant progress we have made over the past 10 years to build the nation's preparedness and resiliency," she said during a White House briefing.
"Perhaps most critically, it would have serious consequences to the flow of trade and travel at our nation's ports of entry," she said. "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 O'Hare -- 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, Napolitano said. Reductions in overtime and hiring freezes at US transportation security officers will increase domestic passenger wait times at the busiest US airports, she said.
"On the southwest border, our biggest land ports could face waits of up to five hours, functionally closing these ports during core hours," she said. "At our sea ports, 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. Midsize and smaller ports would experience constrained hours of operation, affecting local crossborder communities. At our cruise terminals, process times could increase up to six hours, causing passengers there as well to miss connecting flights, delay trips and increase their cost." Sequestration will decrease the number of hours the US Border Patrol has to operate between the ports of entry by up to 5,000 Border Patrol agents, she said.
The Coast Guard will reduce its presence in the Arctic by a third, she said, adding, "We will curtail our air and surface operations by more than 25 percent, affecting management of the nation's 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, Napolitano said.
"It would also reduce our investigative activities in areas like human smuggling and commercial trade fraud," she said.
In terms of US disaster preparedness, response and recovery efforts, the budget cuts will reduce the Disaster Relief Fund by nearly one USD billion, potentially affecting survivors recovering from Hurricane Sandy, the tornadoes in places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Joplin, Missouri, and other major disasters across the country, Napolitano said.
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, she said.
"Threats from terrorism and the need to respond and recover from natural disasters do not diminish because of budget cuts," Napolitano said. "Even in the current fiscal climate, we do not have the luxury of making significant reductions to our capabilities without significant impacts".
"As we approach the First of March, I join with all of my other colleagues and with the governors to ask the Congress to prevent sequestration in order to maintain the safety, security and resiliency of the country," she said.