Border Agents Go Unpaid as Trump Mulls National Emergency

As the government shutdown over the wall nears record length, close to 100,000 CBP and ICE employees are working without pay.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent scans the U.S.-Mexico border on March 13, 2017, in Roma, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)
A U.S. Border Patrol agent scans the U.S.-Mexico border on March 13, 2017, in Roma, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Vandals cut down protected Joshua trees at a California national park. Trash and human waste are piling up on the National Mall. Diplomats are filing for unemployment benefits. And for the men and women charged with securing the country’s borders, an already challenging job just got a lot harder.

Even as President Donald Trump threatens to declare a “national emergency” over what he calls a “humanitarian and security crisis” on the southern border, close to 100,000 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) law enforcement employees missed their first paycheck on Friday due to the 21-day partial government shutdown.

“Their personal and financial well-being is being held at bay here, and they are still being asked to come out and perform their front-line mission with the same level of energy,” said Jayson Ahern, a former acting commissioner of CBP.

Under normal circumstances, the life of a law enforcement officer is difficult. CBP’s almost 20,000 Border Patrol agents, for instance, spend their days monitoring long stretches of desert, often alone for hours or days on end, and frequently risk injury or even death in the line of duty. ICE’s special agents, meanwhile, conduct complex, long-term investigations of smuggling rings and other organized crimes.

But over the past few months, they’ve faced additional strain and scrutiny due to Trump’s focus on the southern border. In December, a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala died of dehydration and shock in Border Patrol custody, as detention facilities are increasingly overwhelmed by the large numbers of families seeking asylum. The shutdown itself was prompted by an impasse between Trump and Congress over funding for a portion of the president’s long-promised border wall.

Now, these men and women must also worry about paying their bills.

All CBP and ICE law enforcement personnel are considered “essential” and as such exempt from the shutdown, a Department of Homeland Security official told Foreign Policy, meaning that they have to report for work. They just don’t get paid for it. ICE and CBP personnel didn’t receive a paycheck on Friday and will remain unpaid for the remainder of the shutdown, the official said.

Many of the men and women posted on the border are entry-level agents who just finished training, said Julie Myers, the assistant secretary of homeland security for ICE under former President George W. Bush. Still others are more senior and have families to feed and mortgages to pay off.

An entry-level CBP officer makes $40,154 a year.

“They may be living paycheck to paycheck, as they are saving for a mortgage and other things,” Myers said.

Law enforcement makes up the vast majority of the people working at CBP and ICE. Out of 60,646 CBP employees, 54,935—91 percent—are exempt from the shutdown and working without pay, according to DHS. Meanwhile at ICE, 16,254 employees—69 percent—are also going without a paycheck.

In addition to working for free, these officers are being forced to take on additional duties. The 13,000 or so furloughed CBP and ICE workers who have been deemed “nonessential” are legally prohibited from doing their jobs, which means critical administrative and logistics work does not get done. As a result, urgent tasks, such as criminal financial investigations, are seriously slowed or even halted.

The agents “are out there trying to protect their borders, trying to keep them safe from all kinds of contraband and crime, but now added to their worries of meeting their mortgage, they are going to have difficulty making their cases,” Myers said.

Meanwhile, criminals could well take advantage of overworked agents.

“The criminals are not furloughed,” Myers said. “They are going to see that as a vulnerability and say, ‘Hey, this is a great time to engage in human trafficking” and other infractions.

Today, of the roughly 245,000 DHS employees, about 179,000 are working without pay, according to DHS.

“The dedicated men and women of DHS are fully prepared to protect the homeland and keep Americans safe during this lapse in government funding,” DHS Press Secretary Tyler Q. Houlton said. “We urge Congress to fully fund DHS in order to pay the federal employees on the front lines defending our nation.”

Another key component of DHS, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), has also taken body blows from the shutdown, as essential TSA agents at airports have started to call in sick rather than work for free. Houlton dismissed reports of TSA’s staffing problems last week as “fake news.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman