A post-election to-do list for the administration and Congress

Television commercials are back to pitching deodorant and dishwasher detergent instead of trashing politicians with out-of-context quotes and embarrassing pictures while ominous music plays in the background, so that means the election must be over.

But now the real work begins. Congress is back in Washington in a lame duck session to stare down the prospects of going over the fiscal cliff, which is a dangerous cocktail of big tax hikes and drastic spending cuts that could send an already soft U.S. economy back into a recession.

Those of us on the border are watching closely to get a sense of how our issues are going to figure into the next Congress and what priority level they’ll take in the administration.

So here’s a post-election to-do list straight from the border for the president and Congress:

Avoid Sequestration

Sequestration is the fancy word for steep, government-wide spending cuts, and it’s a major component of the fiscal cliff.

Anyone familiar with our country’s debt and deficit situation might, at first blush, think sequestration sounds like a good idea. After all, our government spends more than it takes in. But sequestration cuts with an axe, not a scalpel. These cuts would be so severe that they could hurt the economy, lead to job losses and cut into core government functions.

According to a report by the Office of Management and Budget, “the number of Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, Customs and Border Patrol agents, correctional officers, and federal prosecutors would be slashed. “

We can’t afford for CBP to get hit by the oncoming sequestration train. An agency that in fiscal year 2010 facilitated $2 trillion worth of trade is too vital to our country’s economic health to be subject to such indiscriminate cuts.  But wait, what about the guys in ‘green’ our Border Patrol Agents, just last year we added hundreds to their numbers, and more still needs to be done, cuts to this would present a huge step in the wrong direction especially where there is already talk about immigration reform emanating from the House side. Congress and the president need to avert this crisis straight away. There’s no time for political posturing on this one.

I’ll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours

With the election in our rearview mirror, congressional leadership is sending up smoke signals that 2013 might be the year to make real progress on immigration reform.

The elements of a reform package will likely include border security, workplace enforcement, visa reform and some attempt to seriously confront how to handle the millions of undocumented immigrants already in this country.

One BIG issue that I have not heard of as of late is how we will confront the documentation of exiting legitimate border crossers (those with I-94’s and Border Crossing Card’s) as they head back home through those same ports.  This will present the largest hurdle of them all.  According to my conversations with CBP and others, nearly 45% of the undocumented people in our country actually came over legally….and stayed!  There is no way of have true reform unless we address the back door that is wide open.  Can anyone say US-EXIT?  

Because border security will likely figure prominently in the immigration discussion, it’s incumbent upon those of us who understand the border to help educate those whose image of the border and what happens at a port of entry is more fiction than fact.

But I also hope that the president and Congress don’t play the old Washington game of heaping criticism on one side’s reform proposal without proposing one of their own. Leaders of both parties in the House and Senate and the president need to put on the table their guiding principles and goals for a reformed immigration system and begin a substantive debate. The window for action will close quickly.

Shuffling the Deck

With the president about to begin his second term, new cabinet officials will soon come on the scene. There’s rumor that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will move on to another post.

That would leave DHS in search of a new secretary and CBP still without a Senate-confirmed commissioner, something that has eluded President Obama for his entire four years in office.

If we can make an early Christmas wish, it would be that the president names individuals to these posts who not only can pass muster with the Senate, but who understand that trade and security must go hand and hand and need not be at odds with one another.

Get it on the calendar

All of these issues are percolating as Mexico’s new president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, eyes his December 1 inauguration.

I hope President Obama invites his new counterpart in Mexico to Washington in early 2013 and sends a clear message to business and market watchers that our two countries are committed to working together to foster a mutually beneficial relationship across our shared border that reflects how intertwined our economies are. That would make for a happy New Year.

Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.  Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido

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