Review Category : Poltics

Whistleblowers: US Gave Visas to Suspected Forgers, Fraudsters, Criminals

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — Officials overseeing a federal program that offers an immigration short-cut to wealthy foreign investors have ignored pointed warnings from federal agents and approved visas for some immigrants suspected of having committed fraud, money laundering, and even one applicant with alleged ties to a child porn website, an ABC News investigation has found.

The shortcomings prompted concerns within the Department of Homeland Security that the boutique immigration program would be exploited by terrorists, according to internal documents obtained by ABC News.

“It is shocking,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican. “Particularly when you have F.B.I. and other law enforcement agencies that are saying national security could be compromised or is being compromised — that’s enough for us to be concerned.”

Five different Homeland Security whistleblowers spoke with ABC News about a range of cases where visas were approved despite numerous red flags. They said objections were often ignored because the immigration program is so popular within the Obama Administration and with members of Congress from both parties.

Known as the EB-5 visa program, foreigners who are willing to invest $500,000 in an American business can jump to the front of the line and obtain legal status to live in the U.S. for two years. If the investment is shown to create at least 10 jobs, the investors can receive a “Green Card” — permanent residency.

Some immigration groups have criticized the program as “nothing more than selling Green Cards.”

Brent Wilkes, the executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the largest Hispanic civil rights groups in the U.S. said it “short circuits” the immigration process, allowing foreign nationals “with enough cash” to leap ahead of legitimate applicants who lack the means.

Supporters call the program a “win-win” because as the investors accelerate through the immigration process, their overseas money helps spur job-creating projects in the U.S.

“The American worker [is] able to get to work thanks to the capital investment coming through the program,” said Peter Joseph, the executive director of the Association to Invest in the U.S.A., a Washington, D.C. group that has advocated for the little-known immigration program.

But an ABC News investigation found that in addition to reaching wealthy foreign investors, the program has become a magnet for those seeking to sidestep the scrutiny of the traditional immigration process. In one case, immigration officials pushed through a visa application from Chinese investor in a Las Vegas hotel project despite an internal review that found the investor had previously been turned back at the border, and much of his visa application had likely been fabricated, immigration records show.

A Feb. 1, 2013 Homeland Security internal review obtained by ABC News also lays out in stark detail the breadth of the troubles afflicting some of the roughly 600 so-called regional centers — private sector entities certified by Homeland Security to recruit foreign investors for specific business ventures that will qualify for EB-5 visas. The document summarizes 41 investigations, some open and some now closed, into allegations ranging from espionage to fraud to drug trafficking involving investors in various EB-5 investment projects.

One regional center, run by an Iranian-born businessman living in Beverly Hills was approved to raise roughly $25 million in investment money from foreign sources even when one of his businesses was being raided by agents. Federal officials told ABC News the businessman is suspected of allegedly smuggling banned items to Iran.

Another regional center raised money from Chinese investors to finance the construction of federal buildings, including an FBI headquarters building in San Diego, raising what one internal document called “national security concerns” that “pertain to Chinese investors having visibility to FBI blueprints/information.”

DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard did not respond to a request for updated figures. But he and other Homeland Security officials have defended the program –- acknowledging past problems but arguing that improvements have drastically reduced the cause for concern.

Late Monday night, DHS released a statement in which it said the immigration agency “only has the authority to terminate a regional center if there is evidence the center is no longer promoting economic growth -– not on the basis of national security concerns.”

“This lack of discretion limits the ability of the Director or the Secretary to terminate a regional center in the event of suspected or even proven criminal activity,” the statement says, adding that the administration sought additional leeway from Congress to act on security concerns but did not receive it.

Advocates for the program also acknowledged the visa program had suffered from occasional failures. But they touted the numerous successful projects that have been financed through this form of foreign investment, and credit it for spurring job growth through some of the toughest years of the shaky economy.

“I don’t think we should let a few anecdotes cast a cloud over an entire industry,” Joseph said.

Joseph noted the program is now so popular that the 10,000 visas allotted in 2014 for EB-5 investors were claimed in a matter of months, and he is lobbying for its expansion. The money has paid for popular projects — a Brooklyn basketball arena, a California winery, a Vermont ski lodge, even a Hollywood movie studio that have supported an estimated 42,000 jobs.

“It’s a win for the investor, who’s seeking to get an immigration benefit, along with a return on their investment, along with the American worker who’s able to get to work, thanks to the capital investment coming through the program,” Joseph said.

In recent years, as the program has grown dramatically in popularity, it has sparked controversy.

In 2013, then-Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe was accused by political opponents of trying to prod federal officials to approve visas for investors in an electric vehicle start-up venture he ran. He denied that he sought undue influence. In 2014, questions about an EB-5 investment scheme in South Dakota became grist for political ads targeting then-U.S. Senate candidate Mike Rounds, who was attacked for his role in oversight of investment projects while he was governor. Rounds called the attacks political and “inaccurate” and “defamatory.”

Questions about the SLS Hotel project in Las Vegas first gained attention when an article in The Washington Times revealed that Homeland Security expedited the processing of investor visas after Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (D) and his staff began prodding the department to move faster. Reid aides said their push to eliminate longstanding bureaucratic hurdles with the program and was aimed at creating local jobs.

But in a series of interviews, Homeland Security whistleblowers who spoke with ABC News on the condition they not be identified said their greatest concern was that political pressure to expedite the review process has led officials to grant visas to applicants who had significant red flags in their backgrounds.

When the SLS Hotel chain sought to fund construction of a hotel on the Las Vegas strip using foreign investors, Reid and his aides urged immigration officials to speed up their review of the visa applicants, internal emails show. Each visa applicant approval meant another $500,000 could flow into the construction budget, and the developers were anticipating as much as $200 million from foreign investors.

Michael Vannozzi, then a top aide to the senator, wrote to say that a failure by immigration officials to push through approvals could cause the project’s major investor, JP Morgan Chase, to back out. Emails show Reid personally appealed to the then-head of USCIS, Alijandro N. Mayorkas, to give the matter his attention. Mayorkas, who has since been promoted to deputy secretary, responded to the request by saying he would take “a fresh look” at the issue.

Shortly after the agency reversed course and sped up the processing of SLS Hotel investor applications, a career immigration official wrote in a Feb. 3, 2013 email that the decision had been “shoved down our throats” after Mayorkas and his senior advisor had “refused to listen to any operational concerns about expedites, including fraud and national security.”

ABC News obtained copies of background reports prepared by government fraud detection specialists about several of the SLS Hotel investors. The investigators raised questions about those applicants’ background –- most of them Chinese applicants who could not sufficiently document the source of their $500,000 investment. Applicants must present proof the money is not the product of illegal activity, or funneled to them by a government entity to help get a spy into the U.S.

In one case, a fraud investigator found bank documents “with eraser marks” and touched up with whiteout. In another, employer information the investor produced proved to be false. In a particularly glaring case, investigators found an applicant who had previously been refused entry into the U.S., and who submitted his application “with forged and fraudulent documents.”

“It is suspected that entry into the U.S. was to knowingly enter into a marriage fraud scheme,” the report states. The determination of this review: “Fraud found.”

Subsequent records from the applicant processing system, obtained by ABC News, show that an “intent to deny” notice was sent to the investor in February of 2014. But the decision was reversed in May. On May 27, the applicant’s visa was approved.

Inside the immigration agency, whistleblowers said, there were serious concerns surrounding another applicant who sought to invest in the SLS Hotel project. In 2013, the applicant was flagged by FBI agents who had been reviewing EB-5 cases. “Please really look” at the applicant, the FBI agent urged in one email. Immigration officials conducting background checks on the man found that his wife was a possible match for a woman who had received payments from people accessing a child pornography web site.

Investigators found “unusual wire transfers” and “suspicious financial activities” that included “a front company whose real purpose is to launder the investor’s capital” and “appear to be an effort to obscure” the source of his funds. Records show that customs officials had, at least twice, denied him entry into the U.S.. But documents obtained by ABC News show that his approval notice was sent on Jan. 29, 2014.

Ron Klasko, one of nation’s top EB-5/immigration lawyers, represents SLS Las Vegas and helped handle the visa applications for the hotel project. He said in an interview that no applicant can be rejected based on rumors or suspicions. There must be “either a conviction or a reason to believe that he’s engaged in criminal activity,” he said. He said that every SLS Hotel investor was subjected to layers of scrutiny before even being submitted for consideration by immigration officials.

“There were some investors where I reviewed it and we were not comfortable,” Klasko told ABC News. Even before the applications came to him, he said an agent working in the investor’s home country went through “a two to three month process to document how the investor gets his money… No one wants to be in the business of refunding the money.”

Klasko said that not all the applications were approved without questions. “In some there was a request for evidence. It came back to us. But as far as I know, [eventually] 100 percent of the investors were approved,” he said.

The SLS Hotel project opened to great fanfare last year, with an enormous fireworks display over the city meant to celebrate this sign of economic rebirth. Today, it is heralded as one of the EB-5 program’s most notable achievements, including by Senator Reid.

“Senator Reid is proud to have successfully fought for a project that creates 8,600 Nevada jobs,” Reid’s spokesman wrote in an email responding to questions from ABC News. Reid’s statement notes that his office advocated for the project to receive immediate attention, and nothing more. “It is worth noting that Senator Reid can’t affect the ultimate outcome of these petitions,” he said. “Expediting the review of petitions has no bearing on whether they are adjudicated favorably or not. It just moves petitions to the front of the line.”

Watch the full report on World News Tonight With David Muir and Nightline.

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National Republicans Think Dick Cheney Is a Fashion Icon

Purestock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — Who knew Dick Cheney was so fashionable?

After raising a reported $3 million selling signature George H W Bush socks, the Republican National Committee is now looking to cash in on another famous Republican’s apparel. This time it’s former Vice President Dick Cheney’s cowboy hat.

On Monday, the RNC sent out an e-mail fundraising solicitation offering donors “The Official Cheney Cowboy Hat” in exchange for a donation of $72.

The email, signed by Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus, reads, “By nature, America is a nation of leaders, pioneers and trailblazers. We’re not a nation that leads from behind, blurs the lines or backs down from our principles.” Priebus continued, “That’s why we’re bringing back the Official Cheney Cowboy Hat.”

The RNC first offered Cheney’s cowboy hat in exchange for a donation in December.

The latest RNC fundraising drive comes just after the former vice president’s 74th birthday, which he celebrated this past weekend.

Best Grandpa ever had lots of help celebrating his 74th this weekend. pic.twitter.com/x9usHEjYQc

— Liz Cheney (@Liz_Cheney) February 2, 2015

The e-mail did not include a deadline, but it did say the hats will only be available for a limited time.

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Groundhog Bites Wisconsin Mayor

Margaret_Sherman/iStock/Thinkstock(SUN PRAIRIE, Wis.) — Maybe the groundhog thing is getting out of control?

The mayor of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, was bitten on Monday by his town’s rodent prognosticator named Jimmy during the city’s annual Groundhog Day celebration.

After arriving in a limo, the groundhog’s handler had just lifted the animal in the air when it bit Mayor Jon Freund on his ear in front of the crowd.

The mayor winced during the inopportune moment, but didn’t mess a beat, calling for an early spring even though a clear sky typically means that Jimmy sees his shadow.

The city later issued a statement, saying only the mayor can translate Jimmy’s prediction.

“After a back and forth conversation with Jimmy this morning, the Mayor clearly confirmed Jimmy’s call for winter ending early,” said Neil Stechschulte, director of Economic Development, in a statement. “ Jimmy the Groundhog was very adamant in his prognostication this year, as he leaned into the Mayor’s ear to make sure the Mayor heard him correctly. Mayor Freund stands by his translation, and we continue to put our faith in Jimmy the Groundhog.”

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Rand Paul Says Vaccines Can Lead to ‘Mental Disorders’

US Congress(WASHINGTON) — In a contentious interview on Monday, Sen. Rand Paul said he’s heard of cases where vaccines lead to “mental disorders” and argued that parents should be the ones to choose whether they vaccinate their children, not the government. Paul is a former ophthalmologist.

“I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” Paul, R-Ky., said in an interview with CNBC anchor Kelly Evans.

“I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they’re a good thing, but I think the parents should have some input,” he added. “The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own the children and it is an issue of freedom.”

Vaccinations have emerged as a political topic this week after President Obama urged Americans to vaccinate their children amid a measles outbreak.

“You should get your kids vaccinated,” the president said in an interview with NBC News on Sunday.

In London on Monday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie offered an opposing view to the president’s, saying that families should have a “measure of choice” in whether they should vaccinate their children.

“There has to be a balance and it depends on what the vaccine is, what the disease type is, and all the rest,” Christie said, according to the Washington Post. “Not every vaccine is created equal and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others.”

However, the American Academy of Pediatrics affirmed on Monday the importance of vaccines along with their relatively low risk of harm.

In a statement, the group stressed that the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella is one of the safest and most effective vaccines given, and strongly urged parents to stick to the vaccine schedule recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Reid on Return to Senate: ‘It’s Really Good to Be Back’

Harry Reid / Twitter(WASHINGTON) — Both sides of the political aisle welcomed back Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on Monday.

GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) spoke on the Senate floor about Reid’s return to work following surgery required after an exercise accident in Reid’s Nevada home.

“I want to welcome back our colleague, the majority leader, who’s had a challenging month and we’re happy to see him back here in the Senate,” said McConnell.

Doctors say they’re optimistic Reid will regain vision in his injured eye, but they’re not yet able to say for sure.

The 75-year-old, returning to the Senate floor with a bandaged eye, expressed his thanks to colleagues after receiving a welcome-back handshake from McConnell, saying, “It’s really good to be back.”

“I want to express my appreciation to my colleagues who have been so kind and thoughtful during my recovery time,” Reid added.

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New Regulations for Colorado Marijuana Edibles

Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post(DENVER) — In the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use, new regulations have gone into effect with a goal of protecting kids.

As of Sunday, edible marijuana sold in Colorado will have to be labeled, reminding users that it’s illegal outside the state.

The laced candy or pastries must also be in childproof packaging, which is sparking some ideas, according to Jeremiah Buck of Tread Global.

“We’re seeing a lot of new, innovated designs coming across our desk, ones that arguably are better than the traditional pill bottle that we all have,” he said.

Colorado lawmakers are expected to soon discuss a measure that would prohibit the use of food-stamp funds for marijuana.

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Winners and Losers in Obama’s Budget

The White House(WASHINGTON) — President Obama has released his FY2016 budget request, a giant document plopped onto desks in Congress on Monday, signaling the president’s spending priorities for the next 10 years.

The document is more of a wish list than anything else. Congress, not the president, drafts federal spending plans, and although presidents make a big fuss over their budget requests each year, Congress often summarily discards them before doing its own thing.

Nonetheless, Obama’s FY2016 signifies his vision for how tax dollars should be allocated.

In Obama’s ideal budget world, there are winners and losers.

WINNERS

1. The poor. President Obama has made a platform out of “middle-class economics.” That was the title of a White House fact sheet on the FY16 budget proposal, and it was a theme in his State of the Union address, where he previewed a lot of the budget ideas put to paper today.

But it’s the poor who would truly benefit from Obama’s tax plans, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the left-leaning Brookings Institution and The Urban Institute:

Among the juiciest of Obama’s proposals to benefit low-income Americans are a $500 tax credit for households that have two earners, expanded child-care access and two free years of community college.

2. The middle class. “Middle-class economics” is the theme of Obama’s fiscal agenda, and his budget lives up to that billing with a slew of proposals. The most notable might be a new child tax credit of up to $3,000 per child, but an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit would include workers without children, another potential boon for middle-class Americans.

3. The construction industry. A big focus of this budget is infrastructure spending. In July, Congress funded transportation projects through May, but this budget would provide for a longer-term solution on infrastructure spending by imposing a tax on U.S. companies’ overseas revenues. Republicans and Democrats both like infrastructure spending, but they’ve feuded (like they have with almost everything) over how to pay for that spending. Obama’s solution isn’t likely to gain traction with GOP lawmakers, but it would benefit firms that work on roads and bridges.

4. Parents. A tax credit of up to $3,000 per child would help them out.

ICYMI: How Obama’s latest tax plan will redistribute income from the very rich to the poor. http://t.co/xykZDRJG6Q pic.twitter.com/g59za8jwKM

— Tax Policy Center (@TaxPolicyCenter) February 1, 2015

LOSERS

1. The rich. Wealthy Americans could look forward to a barrage of new taxes to pay for Obama’s middle-class agenda, among them a new capital-gains tax (i.e., a tax on investments) realized at death. According to the Tax Policy Center, 99.6 percent of Americans in the top 1 percent of incomes would see their tax burdens rise.

2. Businesses that make money overseas. Overseas corporate profits are a bipartisan issue. In the past, Republicans have proposed a “repatriation tax holiday” to allow U.S. companies with overseas revenue to move that money back to America without paying any taxes on it. Obama has railed against companies that keep revenue overseas instead of paying U.S. taxes on it. In this budget proposal, Obama rakes in taxes by imposing a mandatory, 14-percent “transition tax” on that overseas money, then taxing it at a higher rate after that.

3. Immunization proponents. Despite the recent measles outbreak, Obama’s budget proposal would cut $50 million from an immunization program at the Department of Health and Human Services.

4. Deficit hawks.
Advocates of scaling back federal spending and paying down the national debt are not probable fans of this budget. Obama’s proposal carries a $474 billion deficit price tag in 2016, and it includes deficits in each of the next 10 years. Although the White House has insisted that these deficits, which are under 3 percent of projected GDP in each of the next 10 years, would help scale back the size of federal deficits, the proposal will almost certainly be a tough sell to Republicans and fiscal conservatives who have railed against deficit spending.

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Winners and Losers in Obama’s Budget

The White House(WASHINGTON) — President Obama has released his FY2016 budget request, a giant document plopped onto desks in Congress on Monday, signaling the president’s spending priorities for the next 10 years.

The document is more of a wish list than anything else. Congress, not the president, drafts federal spending plans, and although presidents make a big fuss over their budget requests each year, Congress often summarily discards them before doing its own thing.

Nonetheless, Obama’s FY2016 signifies his vision for how tax dollars should be allocated.

In Obama’s ideal budget world, there are winners and losers.

WINNERS

1. The poor. President Obama has made a platform out of “middle-class economics.” That was the title of a White House fact sheet on the FY16 budget proposal, and it was a theme in his State of the Union address, where he previewed a lot of the budget ideas put to paper today.

But it’s the poor who would truly benefit from Obama’s tax plans, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the left-leaning Brookings Institution and The Urban Institute:

Among the juiciest of Obama’s proposals to benefit low-income Americans are a $500 tax credit for households that have two earners, expanded child-care access and two free years of community college.

2. The middle class. “Middle-class economics” is the theme of Obama’s fiscal agenda, and his budget lives up to that billing with a slew of proposals. The most notable might be a new child tax credit of up to $3,000 per child, but an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit would include workers without children, another potential boon for middle-class Americans.

3. The construction industry. A big focus of this budget is infrastructure spending. In July, Congress funded transportation projects through May, but this budget would provide for a longer-term solution on infrastructure spending by imposing a tax on U.S. companies’ overseas revenues. Republicans and Democrats both like infrastructure spending, but they’ve feuded (like they have with almost everything) over how to pay for that spending. Obama’s solution isn’t likely to gain traction with GOP lawmakers, but it would benefit firms that work on roads and bridges.

4. Parents. A tax credit of up to $3,000 per child would help them out.

ICYMI: How Obama’s latest tax plan will redistribute income from the very rich to the poor. http://t.co/xykZDRJG6Q pic.twitter.com/g59za8jwKM

— Tax Policy Center (@TaxPolicyCenter) February 1, 2015

LOSERS

1. The rich. Wealthy Americans could look forward to a barrage of new taxes to pay for Obama’s middle-class agenda, among them a new capital-gains tax (i.e., a tax on investments) realized at death. According to the Tax Policy Center, 99.6 percent of Americans in the top 1 percent of incomes would see their tax burdens rise.

2. Businesses that make money overseas. Overseas corporate profits are a bipartisan issue. In the past, Republicans have proposed a “repatriation tax holiday” to allow U.S. companies with overseas revenue to move that money back to America without paying any taxes on it. Obama has railed against companies that keep revenue overseas instead of paying U.S. taxes on it. In this budget proposal, Obama rakes in taxes by imposing a mandatory, 14-percent “transition tax” on that overseas money, then taxing it at a higher rate after that.

3. Immunization proponents. Despite the recent measles outbreak, Obama’s budget proposal would cut $50 million from an immunization program at the Department of Health and Human Services.

4. Deficit hawks.
Advocates of scaling back federal spending and paying down the national debt are not probable fans of this budget. Obama’s proposal carries a $474 billion deficit price tag in 2016, and it includes deficits in each of the next 10 years. Although the White House has insisted that these deficits, which are under 3 percent of projected GDP in each of the next 10 years, would help scale back the size of federal deficits, the proposal will almost certainly be a tough sell to Republicans and fiscal conservatives who have railed against deficit spending.

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Obama Unveils Budget, Urges GOP to Fund DHS

The White House(WASHINGTON) — As President Obama unveiled his 2016 budget on Monday, he urged Republicans to tackle some unfinished business: funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

Speaking to employees at DHS headquarters, the president once again urged Republicans, who are still furious with his executive actions on immigration reform, not to play politics with funding for the key agency.

“If they don’t agree with me, that’s fine. That’s how our democracy works. You may have noticed they usually don’t agree with me,” Obama quipped. “But don’t jeopardize our national security over this disagreement.”

With DHS funding set to expire at the end of the month, the president warned lawmakers not to use those purse strings to make a political point.

“The men and women of America’s homeland security apparatus do important work to protect us, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress should not be playing politics with that. We need to fund the department, pure and simple,” he said.

Obama is proposing a $4 trillion budget that would lift the automatic sequestration cuts, which he called “mindless austerity,” and increase domestic and defense spending.

“My budget will end sequestration and fully reverse the cuts to domestic priorities in 2016. And it will match the investments that were made domestically dollar for dollar with increases in our defense funding,” he said.

But Obama also warned that the two must go hand-in-hand.

“I will not accept a budget that severs the vital link between our national security and our economic security,” he said, sending a warning to lawmakers who support increasing just defense spending, but not increased domestic investments in infrastructure, education and his other initiatives aimed at boosting the middle class.

The budget, which is seen as more of an opening bid, now heads for a lengthy negotiation process.

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Obama Unveils Budget, Urges GOP to Fund DHS

The White House(WASHINGTON) — As President Obama unveiled his 2016 budget on Monday, he urged Republicans to tackle some unfinished business: funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

Speaking to employees at DHS headquarters, the president once again urged Republicans, who are still furious with his executive actions on immigration reform, not to play politics with funding for the key agency.

“If they don’t agree with me, that’s fine. That’s how our democracy works. You may have noticed they usually don’t agree with me,” Obama quipped. “But don’t jeopardize our national security over this disagreement.”

With DHS funding set to expire at the end of the month, the president warned lawmakers not to use those purse strings to make a political point.

“The men and women of America’s homeland security apparatus do important work to protect us, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress should not be playing politics with that. We need to fund the department, pure and simple,” he said.

Obama is proposing a $4 trillion budget that would lift the automatic sequestration cuts, which he called “mindless austerity,” and increase domestic and defense spending.

“My budget will end sequestration and fully reverse the cuts to domestic priorities in 2016. And it will match the investments that were made domestically dollar for dollar with increases in our defense funding,” he said.

But Obama also warned that the two must go hand-in-hand.

“I will not accept a budget that severs the vital link between our national security and our economic security,” he said, sending a warning to lawmakers who support increasing just defense spending, but not increased domestic investments in infrastructure, education and his other initiatives aimed at boosting the middle class.

The budget, which is seen as more of an opening bid, now heads for a lengthy negotiation process.

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