LOS ANGELES AND WASHINGTON — President Obama will ask Congress for $27 billion for border and transportation security in the next budget year, fulfilling a promise to the Mexican government to battle the southbound flow of illegal weapons and setting the stage for immigration reform by first addressing enforcement, administration officials said Tuesday.
The spending, an 8% increase over this year's, will enable the administration to hire more agents and enhance security at air- and seaports. Obama also will request more money to expand screening for illegal immigrants in jail and to improve a Web-based program for verifying workers' employment eligibility.
The funding requests are part of the 2010 budget Obama plans to present to Congress on Thursday. Legislators last week passed a $3.5-trillion budget blueprint that tracks Obama's major policy goals, including a healthcare overhaul and a push for renewable energy sources.
The border and immigration budget underscores differences with the Bush administration, which emphasized border fence construction, increased detention space and more teams to raid work sites. Obama has already changed the game on work-site enforcement, giving immigration agents new guidelines that shift the emphasis from illegal workers to employers who break the law by hiring them.
In devoting more money to security and enforcement, Obama may be creating some political space needed to revamp the immigration system. The president risks alienating many conservatives if he doesn't emphasize strong border and immigration enforcement before taking action on a reform package that would create a path to legalization for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
"If the American people don't feel like you can secure the borders," Obama said during a prime-time news conference last week, "then it's hard to strike a deal that would get people out of the shadows and on a pathway to citizenship who are already here, because the attitude of the average American is going to be, 'Well, you're just going to have hundreds of thousands of more coming in each year.' "
Administration officials, who laid out the priorities for border and immigration enforcement Tuesday, said they wanted to use technology and personnel to help secure the Southwest border and to help battle Mexican drug cartels responsible for widespread violence that threatens to spill into the U.S.
More than 7,600 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since January 2008.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that the budget "clearly demonstrates the president's commitment to a smart and effective immigration policy."
"We are continuing to focus on tightening our borders and stronger enforcement, and this budget gives us essential new resources and tools to do just that," she said.
During his visit to Mexico last month, Obama said the U.S. would do more to stop the weapons that have found their way from the U.S. to Mexican drug cartels.
Standing next to Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Obama said: "This war is being waged with guns purchased not here, but in the United States. . . . So we have responsibilities as well. We have to do our part. We have to crack down on drug use in our cities and towns. We have to stem the southbound flow of guns and cash."
Specifically, the budget doubles Department of Homeland Security funding to nearly $47 million to combat southbound firearms and currency smuggling, and adds more than 100 Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers.
An additional $70 million will allow the federal government to hire 349 agents and investigators to work with the Mexican government on developing intelligence to better fight the cartels.
The budget includes an 18% increase for the Department of Justice's Southwest Border Initiative, which targets the violence fueled by the drug cartels.
The budget plan also calls for a 12% fiscal boost to the Transportation Security Administration, allocating $985 million at airports, $250 million at seaports and $1.9 billion for the Coast Guard. Much of the money will be spent on new technologies and additional security personnel.
Asked about Obama's pledge to change the immigration system, an administration official said Tuesday: "Enforcement has to be part of the equation. If the goal here is to get an immigration system that functions, enforcement is central to that."
Among the immigration enforcement priorities, the budget increases funding by 30% to nearly $200 million to enable the Department of Homeland Security to hire 80 new people to identify criminal immigrants in the jails and prisons for deportation.
Obama also wants to spend $112 million, a 12% increase, to make E-Verify, an employment verification program, more reliable and to get more employers to use it.
The emphasis on border security isn't a surprising first step by the administration, said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank.
"It's a no-brainer that he is going to want to spend a lot of resources and build muscle at the border," she said.
But she said that Obama shouldn't stop there.
"The second chapter," she said, "better be looking to Congress and being in the driver's seat, both publicly and behind closed doors, driving a legislative package successfully."