Policymakers, office-seekers, and the American people have numerous issues to consider in 2016. The following are the top five homeland security issues that Congress and the Administration need to consider this year.
1. Immigration Enforcement. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy, most notably President Obama’s executive action on immigration in 2014, has increasingly pushed immigration officers to focus their enforcement efforts on so-called priorities, while ignoring or even rewarding the vast majority of illegal immigrants who do not fit such priorities. DHS statistics indicate that the U.S. conducted only 462,463 deportations in fiscal year (FY) 2015, plummeting to their lowest level since 1971. Deportations from the interior of the U.S. have dropped from around 230,000 in FY 2010 to approximately 70,000 in FY 2015, a decline of 70 percent in just five years. Even though removing criminal aliens is an Administration “priority,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported just over 63,000 criminal aliens from the U.S. interior in 2015, a decline of almost 60 percent from approximately 150,000 in FY 2011.
Moving forward in 2016, Congress and the next Administration should:
- Defund or rescind the President’s executive actions on immigration enforcement.
- Strengthen the 287(g) program. Congress should expand 287(g), a program which trains and deputizes state and local police to help enforce immigration law, by increasing funding for the program and requiring DHS to enter into a 287(g) agreement with any state and local government that requests entry.
- Increase rapid-removal authority. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 should be clarified to ensure that children who are not victims of human trafficking should also be removed in an expedited manner to discourage future surges. Such expedited removal authority should be made explicit in section 235 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
- Provide more immigration prosecutors, judges, and agents to more effectively adjudicate cases and remove illegal immigrants.
- Ensure immigrants appear at their court hearings through detention and expanded use of effective “Alternatives to Detention,” such as GPS tracking anklets.
2. Coast Guard. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) is a unique part of DHS, being the only military branch located outside the Department of Defense. The USCG has a variety of missions ranging from Artic operations, port security, drug interdiction, search and rescue, and other maritime safety and compliance responsibilities. Yet the government has funded the USCG inconsistently and insufficiently in recent years, leading to a number of capacity and capability challenges. The passage in late 2015 of an omnibus appropriations bill provided some relief to the USCG by increasing its acquisition budget and funding an unrequested (but necessary) ninth National Security Cutter (NSC). However, the sea service is far behind in two other key programs: the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) and a replacement polar icebreaker. Congress should strive to find a path forward for both programs that best uses taxpayer dollars.
Congress and the next Administration should:
- Recapitalize the Coast Guard. Funding for acquiring new Coast Guard vessels has been regularly short of what is necessary to complete USCG’s mission and often results in additional acquisition inefficiencies and costs. Congress should commit to providing consistent acquisitions funding. This includes continuing to fund the Coast Guard acquisition budget at a minimum of $1.5 billion, accelerating the contract award and building of the offshore patrol cutter fleet, investing in more unmanned systems, and pursuing alternative options for fulfilling polar icebreaking requirements, such as purchasing foreign-built icebreakers.
3. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). After the passage of the Stafford Act in 1988, the number of declared federal disasters dramatically changed, steadily rising from an average of 28 per year under President Ronald Reagan, to an average of 130 per year under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The Stafford Act shifted most of the costs of a federalized disaster away from states and local governments to the federal government and made it relatively easy to qualify as a federal disaster. This combination has put FEMA in high demand, leaving it unprepared—both in terms of readiness and money—for truly catastrophic disasters in which its services are most needed.
To move from this unsustainable and harmful path, Congress should:
- Increase the Stafford Act threshold. The increase should require $3 per capita in damages with a $5 million minimum threshold (under which a federal disaster is never declared) and a $50 million maximum threshold (over which a disaster declaration is always issued).
- Reduce the FEMA cost share from between 75 percent and 100 percent to 25 percent, with a greater cost share for large catastrophes. This system will return responsibility to states for more localized disasters, letting FEMA save funds for catastrophic disasters.
4. Refugee and Visa Vetting. Multiple events in 2015 raised real concerns over how individuals are vetted before coming to the U.S., whether they be refugees, permanent immigrants, temporary workers, or visitors.
The refugee process is likely the most difficult method for entering the U.S., taking 12–18 months on average to complete. Multiple background checks will query the State Department, DHS, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, Interpol, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Department of Defense databases. In addition, the refugee process requires a Security Advisory Opinion be completed by the intelligence community on many high-risk refugee applicants. Interagency checks are constantly being done in connection with a wide range of U.S. agencies. Interviews by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services cover everything from immigration matters to security and country-specific questions. The Syrian Enhanced Review is already applying additional scrutiny to Syrian applicants, giving additional security and intelligence resources to adjudicators.
For other, shorter term visas, similar but quicker vetting is required, although security officials may put any visa application through additional scrutiny. Similarly, the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) includes vetting but does not require the in-person interview before allowing travel to the U.S. In exchange, VWP countries provide the U.S. with intelligence on known and suspected terrorists, serious criminals, and lost and stolen passports, as well as improving airport security and counter-terrorism measures. While there is always room for program improvement as threats evolve, the VWP is a crucial tool for U.S. security.
The U.S. has taken significant strides in improving the vetting process since 9/11 by breaking down walls between systems and agencies to ensure that the necessary intelligence connections are made. Also critical to vetting, however, is having enough useable intelligence in U.S. systems and agencies. While the U.S. can and should continually look to improve the ways in which information is shared and connections are made, recent budget cuts to the U.S. intelligence community, the retrenchment of capabilities following revelations by Edward Snowden, and growing threats around the world point to the U.S. not having the intelligence resources it needs.
5. DHS Oversight Reform. Labyrinthine layers of congressional oversight of DHS is sucking up its time and resources. There is bipartisan agreement amongst former and current DHS officials, think tanks, and the 9/11 Commission that the current byzantine system of congressional oversight of DHS is harming security. The only reason for jurisdiction over DHS to be split across about 100 committees and caucuses is the inability of congressional Members to give up a small slice of their power in exchange for improved security and efficiency.
- Streamline congressional oversight of DHS. Oversight of DHS should resemble that of the Departments of Justice and Defense, comprising one primary homeland security committee in the House and the Senate with some additional oversight by the Intelligence Committees and a Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee in both chambers.
Congress and the next President need to address these issues in order to make the U.S. more secure and more prosperous in 2016 and beyond.
—David Inserra is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security and Cyber Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.