Why Some Border Towns Are Worried About a Government Shutdown

6 minute read

With the threat of a U.S. government shutdown looming at the end of the month, local officials in border towns are worried that staff shortages among federal workers would make it harder to stop criminal activity and process an influx of migrants. Victor Treviño, the mayor of Laredo, Tex., foresees a “catastrophic situation” if House Republicans are unable to agree on a spending plan. 

“It's totally different than the rest of the country. We're at the border,” Treviño says. “Three to four days will throw everything off scale, it'll cause devastation.” If the shutdown occurs, he says he’s prepared to declare a state of emergency. 

Calls for increased border security have intensified this week after a recent surge in migration near the southern border overwhelmed already-crowded facilities and temporarily closed an international bridge, placing border security in the spotlight as Republicans in Congress hope to link controversial border measures with the government’s spending plan.

As the Sept. 30 spending deadline approaches, a government shutdown is increasingly likely. Congress is yet to pass any of the 12 appropriations bills that need to be signed into law to keep the government running as House Republicans remain divided over top-line spending levels and various policy concessions.

Several House Republicans have threatened to block a stopgap bill to keep the government funded unless it includes a security crackdown along the U.S.-Mexico border. Such a proposal to extract border-security concessions in exchange for funding the government is considered dead-on-arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But some conservatives are determined to tie border issues to the spending fight. “The most critical for me is getting something out so that we can move H.R. 2 [the House GOP’s border bill] and use it as a vehicle for pressuring Senate Democrats to actually do something on the border in the absence of leadership from the President,” Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican and member of the Freedom Caucus, told reporters on Sept. 21. “That’s where the priorities lie for me.”

Read More: Here’s How a Government Shutdown Could Affect You

The pace of unlawful crossings at the southern border dropped sharply in the spring amid uncertainty over the the end of a pandemic-era immigration policy, but numbers rebounded over the summer and are now more than double the 4,900 unlawful crossings a day in April. When asked about how border security provisions would be reflected in Republicans’ plan to fund the government, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol on Monday that “something’s got to change.”

“We just set a new record of 11,000 people [coming across the border] illegally,” he said. “To continue to fund the government to secure the border, I think members should be able to be for that.”

Yet if Republicans push border security measures that Democrats refuse to fund, a government shutdown could exacerbate the worsening border situation. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a South Texas Democrat who sits on the Appropriations Committee, tells TIME that a shutdown will have a significant impact on the nation’s border security, particularly by forcing some border agents to work without pay and possibly furloughing others, and marking the expiration of an existing counter-drone authority that allows federal agencies to identify and neutralize intrusive drones deemed potentially dangerous or threatening. “I find it very ironic that Republicans are threatening a shutdown when this is going to weaken [border security] by taking away authorities and funding, including contractors, from the border,” he says.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat who represents the San Antonio area, tells TIME that thousands of servicemembers in his district may have to work without pay if the government shuts down, placing a financial burden on some military families. “My office has already been getting calls from constituents who are worried about making ends meet,” he says. “I hope cooler heads will prevail in the Republican Party to keep the government open.”

Treviño is worried in particular about a reduction of staffing at the processing center for migrants in Laredo, which he says processes approximately 1,000 people per day. “All these migrants could wind up in the streets,” he says. “They have small children, there’s families, we can’t just turn a blind eye to that.” Depending on how long the shutdown takes—and how long officers can forgo their paychecks—the local processing capacity could come to a halt, he says. “People need to feed their family; they need to pay their bills.”

There’s also security concerns. “There’s always the danger of illegal activity from cartels… smuggling drugs and things like that,” he continues. “If there’s no security, then that activity will increase tremendously.”

Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, argues that “the shutdown should not be so noticeable” in border towns. That’s because law enforcement employees are typically exempt from government shutdowns; they will not be paid during a shutdown, but typically would continue working and get their pay retroactively once the shutdown ends. The longest government shutdown lasted for 34 days under the Trump Administration, and there wasn’t a major exodus of law enforcement employees in border towns during that time, according to Meissner. “The exemption for law enforcement agencies is very broad now,” Meissner says. “I'm quite confident that CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] particularly—given the pressures that it's under right now on the border—will establish those definitions as broadly as possible exactly for the reasons that [Treviño] is talking about.” Still, a 2019 congressional report found that government shutdowns weakened border security. While border patrol agents continued to work, delayed maintenance and repair “endangered the lives of law enforcement officers and created significant border security vulnerabilities,” the report noted.

Blake Barrow, CEO of Rescue Mission of El Paso, which operates two shelters—one specifically for migrants and another for American citizens— also isn’t particularly fazed by a potential shutdown’s impact on his work. “The government’s not doing much to help us anyway,” he says.

Still, the uncertainty around whether a shutdown will occur, how long it will last, and which employees it will affect has worried some local officials in border towns as they deal with spiking numbers of border crossings. “The shutdown would really, really devastate everything,” Treviño says.

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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com and Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com