House Democrats on Thursday unveiled a $55.8 billion proposal for the Department of Homeland Security in fiscal year 2019 that emphasizes technology, but no physical barrier, to enhance border security and also adds more funding for the Coast Guard toward a second heavy icebreaker.

Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate on Wednesday began negotiations on a new spending bill for DHS, with the exception of a 35-day shutdown that ended last week, that has operated under a continuing resolution since Oct. 1, 2018, when the government’s FY ’19 began.

On Thursday, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee said their new proposal for discretionary appropriations is $1.8 billion more than requested and $589 million above the FY ’18 spending bill for DHS.

Included in the proposal is $675 million for non-intrusive inspection technology for deployment at ports of entry into the U.S. The amount for the cargo and vehicle inspection systems is $631 million more than originally requested last February by the Trump administration but in line with a proposal by the administration in January for additional border security funds beyond the president’s demand for $5.7 billion to build more than 200 miles of tall steel barriers along portions of the southern border.

VACIS mobile inspection system from Leidos. The company is one of several that provides inspection systems to scan cargo and vehicles entering the U.S. at ports of entry. Photo: Leidos

The Democrats’ proposal also would provide $400 million for technology to help with border security between ports of entry, a $353 million increase to the request. The administrations’ of George W. Bush and Barack Obama both stressed technology deployments between ports of entry, primarily on the southern border but to a limited degree on the northern border as well, to help staunch the flow of illegal aliens into the U.S.

Where technology is deployed, Customs and Border Protection officials have consistently stated that the sensors and systems contribute to increased apprehensions of illegal migrants, ultimately forcing them to change their migration patterns to areas where fixed sensors aren’t deployed.

Related technology proposals in the Democrats’ opening position include a $45 million bump to the request for equipment to detect opioids, $25 million more than requested for technology at small ports of entry,  and $177 million to the request for new watercraft, aircraft, sensors and more flying hours for CBP’s Office of Air and Marine operations.

The proposal funds $750 million for the Coast Guard’s first new heavy polar icebreaker in more than four decades, and adds another $74 million to procure long-lead time material for the second icebreaker. The Coast Guard ultimately wants to buy three new heavy icebreakers, which it calls Polar Security Cutters, and told Defense Daily on Thursday that as long as it gets funding soon for the first ship, it can “maintain the planned production schedule for delivery of the lead and follow-on Polar Security Cutters (PSC).”

Senate appropriators last summer in their markup of the DHS bill funded the $750 million request for the PSC but House appropriators, led by Republicans, nixed the request for a new vessel and put the money toward physical barriers on the southern border.

The lead PSC is slated for delivery in 2023.

The House Democrats are also offering $91.5 million for new technology at airport checkpoints to better scan carry-on bags. The proposal is $20 million more than requested and would buy 178 of the computed tomography (CT)-based systems, which are being evaluated at 13 airports by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). TSA hopes to award production contracts soon for the CT systems.

The proposal would also restore full funding for TSA VIPR teams, mobile security teams that can be used at transportation systems across the country and even to help secure events like the Super Bowl. The Trump administration is proposing to cut the program.

House Democrats would provide nearly $1.7 billion for the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), increasing the request for cyber operations and support by $68 million, and adding $41.4 million to the request for procurement. The proposal would shift $250 million from CISA to the Office of Biometrics and Identity Management (OBIM), which is moving to the DHS Management Directorate.

Democrats would also provide $818 million for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, $235 million more than requested.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans have until Feb. 15 to reach a new spending deal for DHS and a number of other federal departments and agencies, including NASA. The mid-February date is when a week-old continuing resolution expires to fund affected departments at FY ’18 levels.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, on Wednesday at the outset of the first House and Senate conference on the DHS spending bill, said that U.S. Border Patrol officers want a comprehensive approach to border security that includes barriers, technology, infrastructure and personnel.

“Cameras, sensors, drones and other smart technology highlight the gaps and vulnerabilities along our border,” Shelby said, adding that “smart technology alone does not actually stop anyone from crossing into the U.S. illegally. And if that is happening, our borders are not secure.”

Since signing the new budget resolution, Trump has repeatedly warned that the $5.7 billion wall request must be part of any DHS spending deal. Whether the president decides to shut down the government again or declare a national emergency on the southern border and use previously appropriated funds to pay for the wall construction is anybody’s guess.