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Raising the Risk? What a Homeland Security Shutdown Means

What exactly would it mean for the American public if Congress is unable to negotiate a deal to pay for one of the government’s most important agencies?

Just days away from a potential shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security, Obama administration officials are warning of the dire impacts of what could happen if the agency loses funding at midnight on Friday.

“A shutdown of Homeland Security would have serious consequences and amount to a serious disruption in our ability to protect the homeland," Secretary Jeh Johnson said Monday.

But what exactly would it mean for the American public if Congress is unable to negotiate a deal to pay for one of the government’s most important agencies?

Here is an outline of what America would look like if Homeland Security is partially shuttered:

Will I notice if Homeland Security shuts down?: Probably not, at least in the short term. That’s because about 85 percent of employees would continue working. These 200,000 DHS staffers include most of the TSA agents who scan travelers at airports, customs officials, border patrol officers, the Coast Guard, and those who monitor terrorist threats.

You still could notice some delays at airport security. About seven percent of TSA agents were furloughed during the 16-day shutdown in 2013, according a Congressional Research Service report. The same would hold true this time and around, which means some screeners may need to be pulled off the security line to assist in administrative tasks.

But Johnson warned the much bigger impact will be on employee morale. For the second time in less than two years, DHS employees may be asked to continue to work without getting paid until Congress reaches an agreement. It has a big impact on employees who depend on biweekly paychecks to support their families, officials say.

What about the other 15% of DHS employees? The 30,000 employees who would be furloughed are largely administrative staff that work at department headquarters. While their work is not deemed “essential” to continue during a shutdown, Johnson warned Monday that part of their jobs is “to stay one step ahead of groups such as ISIL,” the extremist group that has taken over a large swath of the Middle East.

What are the other notable impacts?

  • $90 million in enhancements to border security put in place following the influx of migrants that crossed over the U.S.-Mexican border last summer would not be funded.
  • 80 percent of Federal Emergency Management Agency employees would be furloughed, though many would be called back to work if a disaster struck.
  • Secret Service would not receive the $21 million it needs to prepare for the 2016 election. The department would also be shorted the $25 million recommended to overhaul the agency after the recent string of embarrassing security mishaps.
  • The $2.5 billion in grant money DHS doles out to states, cities and towns would come to an immediate halt. This money helps local law enforcement pay for training and equipment.
  • Training would be suspended during a shutdown. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske warned Monday that some of the 500 border patrol recruits currently in training would likely not return.
  • E-Verify, the system that allows business owners to check if a potential hire is eligible to work in the U.S., would stop working.

So what would a shutdown mean for immigration? The irony is that President Obama’s immigration actions would remain largely untouched, even if DHS is partially shuttered. That’s because Citizenship and Immigration Services, which would process the undocumented immigrants applying to stay in the country legally under the president’s actions, is funded by fees and would not be impacted by a lapse in appropriations. But a recent ruling by a Federal District Court in Texas has forced the Obama administration to postpone the president’s actions while they appeal the ruling.

So where do things stand? Republican attempts to fund the department while gutting the president’s immigration efforts have proved unsuccessful. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday said he would try to decouple immigration language from the funding bill, but it is unclear if House Republicans would be willing to go along with the plan. Still, administration officials say even another temporary funding measure would cause uncertainty and have a negative impact on the department’s ability to protect the homeland.

"A shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security in these times is frankly too bitter to contemplate,” Johnson said earlier this month. “But we have to contemplate it.”