As a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in New Mexico, retired Marine Col. Allen Weh says it's time for tougher border security.
As a businessman, Weh stands to benefit from the border crisis. His air charter company, CSI Aviation Inc., is the largest private contractor for ICE Air, the aviation wing of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, winning more than $560 million in ICE contracts since 2010.
President Obama is seeking $3.7 billion from Congress to help stem the surge of young immigrants from Central America crossing the Southwest border. The proposal includes $116 million for transportation, and a good portion of that is likely to go to CSI.
Weh's company is one of many that could profit if Congress approves Obama's plan. They are at the intersection of the highly charged politics of immigration and the economic realities of government contracting.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which would get $1.8 billion from the plan, is already soliciting proposals for a $350-million contract to provide more shelter space for the children and teenagers.
ICE would get $1.1 billion, including $879 million to add detention facilities for adults with children. About half of ICE detention beds are now provided by private companies, but an ICE spokeswoman said she could not give a breakdown of the proposed new spending.
More than $433 million would go to Customs and Border Protection, including $39 million for added surveillance of smuggling routes and remote stretches of the border by drones. The money would pay for 16 more crews to maintain and fly the agency's fleet of Predator B drones, and 16,526 additional hours in the air.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., based in Poway, Calif., has won more than $112 million in Border Patrol contracts since 2010 to maintain the drones, train staff and provide technicians who operate airborne sensors that detect human heat signatures.
About $64 million will go to the Justice Department for more immigration judges and legal programs, an effort to ease the backlog of about 360,000 cases in immigration courts. The money includes $15 million to hire lawyers for the juveniles in court proceedings.
"They're children," said Alison Posner, director of advocacy for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. "Where are they going to get the money for a retainer to pay an attorney?"
The plan also sets aside $5 million for the State Department to develop bus placards, highway billboards, and radio and TV spots in Central America aimed at discouraging parents from sending their children north. Contractors normally provide information services.
"Doing nothing is not an option," Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security, told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
He said the surge in immigrants had drained budgets, driving up overtime, detention and transportation costs. At this rate, he said, ICE will run out of money in mid-August and Customs and Border Protection will do so in mid-September.
If Congress doesn't approve Obama's emergency spending request, Johnson warned, "we will have to go to a harsh form of reprogramming that will take money away from some vital Homeland Security programs I am sure members of this committee care a lot about."
Obama has emphasized that he wants to speed up deportations of some of the 57,000 unaccompanied children and teenagers who have been apprehended at the Southwest border since October. Officials said Thursday that they expected 90,000 minors to arrive by the end of September.
ICE charter flights are likely to boom as a result.
Most of the minors have come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and they "must be flown back to their countries," Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told a hearing Wednesday.
Thomas Winkowski, principal deputy assistant secretary of ICE, told the same hearing that his agency had "leased additional charter planes" to fly some of the minors to temporary shelters run by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in several states.
Weh's company has worked for ICE since 2006, and runs flights for ICE Air Operations from 26 cities, with hubs in Mesa, Ariz.; Alexandria, La.; San Antonio; and Miami. Last fiscal year, ICE Air made 2,256 flights to 16 countries, moving 257,000 people — including 189,000 deportations and other removals.
CSI Aviation doesn't own the aircraft, but charters them from other companies. The Albuquerque-based firm also handles work for other federal agencies, including the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service, but the deal with ICE is by far its largest federal contract, records show.
Weh, former state Republican chairman in New Mexico, won the GOP primary last month and will face the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Tom Udall, in November.
In 2010, when seeking the Republican nomination for governor, he had to fend off charges from primary foe Susana Martinez that he supported "amnesty" for immigrants living in the country illegally because he had supported a reform bill proposed by former President George W. Bush.
Weh responded with a robocall from Republican strategist Karl Rove: "Allen Weh is tough as nails on illegal immigration."
But he lost the primary to Martinez, who is now governor.
In the Senate race, Weh argues that the Obama administration has not done enough to lock down the border. "It is absolutely critical that we secure the border first before we pass immigration reform," he says on his campaign website.
House Republicans made a similar argument to kill a Senate-passed bill that would have provided tens of billions of dollars for border security measures, as well as created a pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
Weh did not respond to requests for an interview. A CSI Aviation spokeswoman referred questions to ICE. An ICE spokesman, Bryan Cox, said the contract with CSI allowed the agency to obtain planes for its international flight network.
Brian Bennett in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.