What Would Happen if the Department of Homeland Security Shut Down?

Actually, not that much.

Secret Service agents stand guard as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks.

It takes more (or less) than a shutdown to keep these guys from being on task: Secret Service agents stand guard as President Obama speaks at Ivy Tech Community College on Feb. 6, 2015, in Indianapolis.

Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

During the October 2013 government shutdown, an American friend of my brother’s who works with refugees got an urgent question from a Middle Easterner.

“Is your family safe?” asked the refugee, who had fled from his home country to Southeast Asia because of violent turmoil. “I hear your country is being held hostage!”

Any type of government shutdown—even if only of a single agency—has real and significant consequences. But many of the politicians who talk about these consequences use the kind of hysterical rhetoric that suggests a shutdown would result in ISIS setting up a new branch office in El Paso, Texas.

We’ve been hearing a lot of that kind of rhetoric lately, since the Department of Homeland Security will run out of funding on Feb. 27 unless Democrats and Republicans have an unlikely “Kumbaya” moment.

“[Republicans] dislike Dreamers more than they dislike ISIS,” New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said a few weeks ago, referring, respectively, to the undocumented immigrants who are currently shielded from deportation and the terrorist army beheading Coptic Christians on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

At issue is funding for the president’s executive action on immigration, a unilateral move he made last year to defer deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants. Republicans, who are typically divided among themselves on the issue, have come together in opposition to the president’s order. They concur that it’s an unconstitutional abuse of executive power and that it’s a “poison pill” for bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Democrats say that kind of legislation wasn’t happening anyway (probably a safe guess on their part) and that the president was well within his rights.

This fight is incredibly high-stakes for both sides. If Republicans cave and decide to fund the president’s executive action, then a substantial portion of their voting base will be irate. Tea Party activists’ opposition to pathway-to-citizenship comprehensive immigration reform is comparable to their opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and many of the Republican candidates who won their midterm bids campaigned on opposing the president’s then-impending immigration move. If they renege on those promises, things will get very tense very fast back in their home districts.

Democrats are in a similar pickle. When the president postponed his immigration move until after the midterm elections (in a largely unsuccessful bid to protect vulnerable Democrats from the political repercussions of his controversial executive action), he won scorching criticism from Hispanic activists and comprehensive immigration reform advocates alike. Hispanic voters are an essential part of the Democratic coalition, and snubbing them in such a public way would be the political equivalent of jumping in front of a cement truck.

So here we are: nine days away from a Department of Homeland Security shutdown, with little hope of an easy way out. What does this mean? Does this mean our homeland will no longer be secure?

Short answer: The homeland is going to be OK. Specifically, a missed funding deadline means a small fraction of the department’s employees would be furloughed. As Alexandra Jaffe notes at CNN, a Congressional Research Service report says that federal employees “whose work is necessary for the preservation of the safety of human life or the protection of property” are required to keep working during shutdowns, though in many cases without pay.* So that takes care of a significant chunk of DHS employees: During the October 2013 government shutdown, 85 percent of the department’s payroll stayed on the job. That report estimates that a little more than 30,000 employees were furloughed, and Jaffe notes that they were mostly those with managerial and administrative gigs. This potential DHS funding snafu would likely follow a similar course. So your friendly neighborhood TSA agents aren’t going anywhere. Neither is the Secret Service (for what that’s worth!).

Big Brother might take a hit, though. A statement from DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson laying out the effect of the shutdown said that as long as the department is funded by temporary continuing resolutions, it can’t issue new grants to help states and municipalities pay for security issues. Current grants pay for a host of projects, including New York City Police Department surveillance cameras and Idaho bomb squads. The department also can’t upgrade “obsolete remote video surveillance systems” near the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley. Johnson says his department needs a full-year appropriations bill instead of another short-term fix like last year’s CRomnibus (the funding measure that expires at the end of this month and got us into this mess in the first place) so it can keep issuing more of those grants.

“[T]he reality is that a department shutdown would have a very limited impact on national security,” write Erica Werner and Alicia Caldwell at the AP. It’s probably even a bit of a misnomer to call a funding lapse a “shutdown.” Such a lapse would certainly be tough for the DHS employees who would get furloughed. And that would put substantial pressure on lawmakers to figure out a solution amenable to both parties. But it also wouldn’t be the apocalypse.

*Correction, Feb. 19, 2015: This article misstated that federal employees “whose work is necessary for the preservation of the safety of human life or the protection of property” get their salaries paid outside the appropriations process. These employees aren’t necessarily paid by means other than appropriations, and might continue working during a shutdown but see a pay lapse. (Return.)