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DHS budget shutdown looms, but frontline services will go on

If the Department of Homeland Security runs out of money next week, as feared, TSA employees will still keep watch on Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and federal agents will still patrol the Arizona-Mexico border.

They just won’t get paid until Congress passes a budget to fund their department.

DHS is currently caught between Democrats and Republicans in Congress who are squabbling over President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration that could protect more than 4 million immigrants from deportation.

The House passed a budget that would fund the department through the end of the fiscal year – the current DHS budget ends Feb. 27 – but strips funding for the president’s immigration orders. The bill has stalled in the Senate, where Democrats have refused to allow a vote.

“We feel like a political football,” said Shawn Moran, vice president and spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents border patrol agents. “We’re caught in the middle of this mess.”

Because all border patrol agents are “essential personnel,” Moran said they would be expected to work through any shutdown. The same would be true of many of the uniformed workers that come to mind when DHS is mentioned.

During the October 2013 government shutdown, more than 85 percent of DHS employees continued to work without pay.

But DHS Press Secretary Marsha Catron said in an email Thursday that about 30,000 employees would still be furloughed if the department is shut down next week. That means that the bulk of “administrative support activities would cease, including much of the homeland security infrastructure that was built following the 9/11 terrorist attacks to improve command, control and coordination of frontline activities,” she said

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In a statement last week about the potential impacts a shutdown would have on border security, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson stressed that “border security is not free” and that “the men and women of DHS need a partner in Congress to fund their efforts.”

And although there will still be boots on the ground patrolling the border, Moran said that doesn’t mean border security won’t suffer.

“Morale is bad on any regular day, but couple that with the fact that we’re not getting paid and we think it definitely impacts morale and that impacts how motivated people are to go out and do the job effectively,” Moran said.

After the 2013 shutdown, workers were eventually paid. But during any shutdown, Moran said, they are forced to rely on personal savings or other financial resources.

“It’s much more difficult to pay bills and meet your financial obligations, which we have to do by policy, when there’s no money coming in,” he said.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said that while a DHS shutdown would not create an obvious national or border security hole, it would lead to back-ups and overworked personnel.

“When you have those kinds of back-ups, that’s when bad people try to do bad things,” Gallego said.

Gallego is one of 119 Democrats, including Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and Rep. Raul Grijalva, who signed a letter sent to House Speaker John Boehner last week that urges him to bring a “clean” DHS bill to the floor – one that funds the agency and leaves the president’s immigration orders alone.

“The House should move forward immediately with a vote on a clean funding bill that would provide certainty and stability to the frontline DHS personnel who protect our nation,” the letter said.

But Boehner said this week that the House has done its job and that it’s up to Senate Democrats to “let the Senate begin debate on a bill to fund the Homeland Security Department.”

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Both the House and Senate are scheduled to return Monday after a weeklong recess for the Presidents Day holiday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s party affiliation.


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Josh Denmark/CBP

A Border Patrol agent on patrol along the Southwest border near Nogales in this file photo.