If funding for the Department of Homeland Security runs out at the end of February, it is unlikely that it would slow the Obama administration down. Instead, the federal government would have little difficulty proceeding to implement the president’s executive action on immigration as planned.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for processing applications related to the president’s amnesty, is fee-based. This means it’s not beholden to the hotly contested annual appropriations, as are other agencies within DHS, such as Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
If DHS funding does run out, USCIS would hardly miss a beat. When the government closed down in October 2013, USCIS stayed open. More than 97 percent of its employees were exempt from the work stoppage, according to a September 2013 report from DHS. All of USCIS’s programs, with the exception of E-Verify, continued despite the shutdown, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Some House Republicans have recognized USCIS’s unique position and introduced an amendment to the Homeland Security appropriations bill that targets the fees that would allow the president’s executive action on immigration to be carried out. Representatives Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.), Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.), and Lou Barletta (R., Penn.) have introduced an amendment that would block USCIS from accessing Immigration Examinations Fee Accounts to further the president’s executive action.
But it remains to be seen whether House Republicans will have any success in stopping USCIS. Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, says Congress should block the use of the fee accounts and instead have all fees go to the U.S. Treasury Department so that it’s easier for Congress to oversee where the money is going. However, she says, there’s some indication that blocking the fees through an appropriations bill could be against the rules because Congress is not supposed to legislate through appropriations.
How other components of DHS are preparing for the possibility of another shutdown remains unclear, but the agency’s past experience suggests a shutdown wouldn’t be catastrophic. Nearly 200,000 of DHS’s estimated 231,117 civilian and military employees were shielded from the 2013 shutdown and continued working, according to the Congressional Research Service. In the event that funding does run out, employees responsible for saving lives and protecting property would remain in place. Chris Cabrera, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council Local 3307 in the Rio Grande Valley, tells NRO he expects that a shutdown at the end of February would mirror what happened last time. “Non-essential personnel wouldn’t work and everyone else would be out there on the line like always,” he says. “This time, especially late February, it’ll be far too busy to be sending anybody home.”
DHS secretary Jeh Johnson has argued against a shutdown on the grounds that it would prevent new projects and not allow him to hire new Secret Service agents necessary for the 2016 election cycle. But, as former Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn pointed out in his final oversight report of DHS, the department could use some belt tightening. Coburn’s report found tens of billions of dollars spent by the department on counterterrorism with little to show, and hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on cybersecurity.
Given the recent terrorist attacks in France and the hacking of U.S. Army Central Command’s Twitter and YouTube accounts, a DHS shutdown could turn public opinion against Republicans deciding to take a stand against the president’s executive action by withholding funding from the department. A shutdown would also likely mean the executive action survives unscathed. Any DHS shutdown would halt some of the federal government’s operations, but its collateral damage could be much more ruinous for the GOP.