Why The GOP Threat To Shut Down DHS Over Immigration May Backfire

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The House GOP’s threatened shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security would not stop President Barack Obama’s executive actions to grant temporary deportation relief and work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants. But in an ironic twist, experts say it would hinder two priorities near and dear to Republican hearts: border security and deportations.

“If somebody were writing a play about this and they wanted to put a perverse circumstance in it that gave the president this smirk authority over the Congress, this is what we’ve done,” Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a leading foe of “executive amnesty” in the House, told TPM.

A lapse in DHS funding on Feb. 28 is possible due to a House Republican strategy to tie funding for the department to separate measures overturning Obama’s immigration relief actions announced in November as well as his June 2012 program to protect young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. The legislation is expected to come up in the House this week.

The House’s strategy sets up a confrontation between the White House and GOP-led Congress, who are bitterly divided over the president’s immigration actions. Obama has signaled he will veto any bill that reverses his immigration actions. Republicans put DHS funding on a short leash in December because they see it as their only leverage to reverse the president’s actions. If there is no agreement, the department will run out of money at the end of February.

But in practice a DHS shutdown may not be the leverage Republicans are making it out to be.

The agency tasked with processing Obama’s deportation relief and work permits for undocumented immigrants — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS — would be largely unaffected. It is funded predominantly by user fees so it doesn’t require an appropriations authorization to carry out its duties.

“USCIS is funded almost entirely by fees which are made available by ongoing law, and are not dependent on annual appropriations,” said David Reich, an appropriations expert with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “That’s a little bit ironic because that is the DHS agency that I think the Republicans have been most focused on as having responsibility for implementing whatever temporary immigration relief the president’s plan is providing. Because they’re the ones who handle these sorts of things — the visas and other kinds of documents that indicate immigration status.”

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), left, and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Notably, the agencies tasked with protecting the border and hunting down undocumented immigrants to deport would be harmed by a shutdown. U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection rely on appropriations. A lapse would cause furloughs of some of their workers while others deemed “essential” for law enforcement must work without pay for the duration of a shutdown, and receive back pay later.

Republican King acknowledged the bitter irony of a DHS shutdown for Republicans.

“If … the president vetoes our bill, we sit here without the ability to override, and that shuts down the funding to DHS operations,” he said in an interview with TPM. “But essential services are border patrol, Customs and Border Protection, ICE — they all have to go to work whether they get paid or whether they don’t. … So they don’t get paid, they get disgruntled, I don’t blame them. Meanwhile, USCIS are issuing his lawless executive permits, and they are fee-for-service, they get paid on time.”

During the 2013 government shutdown, nearly 200,000 of DHS’s roughly 231,117 civilian and military workers — more than 85 percent — had to report to work without pay during the 16-day funding lapse, according to a Congressional Research Service report. All USCIS programs other than E-Verify remained operational, but thousands of employees were furloughed under operations involving border security, TSA, ICE, the coast guard and FEMA.

(Chart via Congressional Research Service)

“It’s going to be the workers who suffer the brunt of the problem,” said Marshall Fitz, vice president of immigration policy at the liberal Center For American Progress. “During the period of the funding gap, they’re not being paid. So you’re not gonna pay your Coast Guard? Border patrol, TSA, Secret Service — you’re not gonna pay them and just say we’ll pay you later? That’s crazy.”

House Republicans released two amendments to their DHS appropriations bill to reverse Obama’s immigration steps dating back years. One amendment by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) targets Obama’s actions announced in November to grant three-year work permits to some 4 million undocumented parents of American citizens, as well as the so-called Morton Memos in 2011, which served as the foundation for the Obama administration’s subsequent actions. A second amendment by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) sunsets Obama’s 2012 program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, to protect young people in the U.S. illegally.

On Monday the White House accused Republicans of attempting to “muck around” with homeland security funding and reiterated that Obama would “oppose any legislative effort to undermine” his actions on immigration.

Some top Republicans are downplaying the possibility of a DHS shutdown. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said Sunday on CBS’ “Face The Nation” that Congress is “obligated” to act against Obama’s “unconstitutional executive action,” but he added: “We’re not going to take any chances with the homeland.”

King doubted that Republican leaders would ultimately stand firm in a stare-down with Obama over DHS funding. He said a lack of commitment is why he voted against a third term for House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) last week.

“We send it to the House, we send it to the Senate, it requires a presidential signature or an override of his veto. So neither one of those two things are very likely to happen,” he told TPM. “We’ve gotta do it … I don’t know what [GOP leaders’] commitment is at this point. But I know how the movie ends. I’ve seen the movie before.”

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