With President Trump holding the federal government ransom to pay for a wall he promised Mexico would fund, and considering the declaration of a “national emergency” to force the military to construct it, he has resorted to several different arguments. Beyond the desire to keep a campaign promise, or allegedly save money, Trump’s main argument has been that building a wall will keep Americans safe.
The cruel irony is that the government shutdown, caused by Trump’s insistence on wall funding, is actually making Americans less secure in a variety of ways.
On Monday, Trump sent out a campaign email asking supporters to sign a petition to “tell Democrats to build the wall” because, “They don’t care about your safety, they only care about Presidential Harassment!” The hosts of Fox News’ Fox & Friends agree with Trump’s security argument, saying last week that while the shutdown might be “an inconvenience” to some, “you deserve to be able to go to sleep at night and not have to worry about being killed by an illegal immigrant.”
The threat of undocumented immigrants is both overblown and false.
Trump’s own State Department said in a 2017 report that there has been “no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain access to the United States.” On Monday, an NBC analysis of Customs and Border Patrol data revealed that in reality, only six people were stopped at the southern border in the first half of 2018 because they were “known or suspected” terrorists — a lot smaller than the previous White House claim of 4,000 such people coming into the country illegally.
But the shutdown is causing serious security threats to Americans in and out of public service.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is not simply in charge of immigration and any potential wall-building activities. It also coordinates the government’s response to cyberattacks on critical infrastructure — something that does not stop during a government shutdown.
“With each passing day, the impact of the government shutdown on our nation’s security grows,” said Suzanne Spaulding, who served as under secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security and is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Meanwhile, our adversaries are not missing a beat and the daily attacks on our systems continue. Cybersecurity is hard enough with a full team. Operating at less than half strength means we are losing ground against our adversaries.”
Defending against cyberattacks with only partial staffing is difficult, and it’s even harder when your agency is in the midst of a reorganization. In November, Trump signed a law establishing DHS’ new Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).
“Getting this agency fully operational requires a lot of work and it’s like repairing an airplane while you’re flying it,” Spaulding said. “You try to avoid disrupting the critical operational activity even while you make changes to improve the organization. This shutdown is a disruption CISA can ill afford.”
What this means for the day-to-day operations of the agency is that 2,008 of the 3,531 staffers at CISA are excepted staff, meaning they must report to work to perform essential functions without pay. They must staff 24/7 cybersecurity watch floors and be ready to respond to any attack. The remaining 45 percent of the agency is furloughed without pay, providing little margin for error.
I like to think that the work that I do is important. But a lot of real heavy lifting to secure the critical infrastructure is done by my DHS colleagues. None are being paid–including those running the 24 hour watch at the NCCIC–and only half of them are able to do their job. https://t.co/JWKj7D4Nrv
— [Furloughed] Allan Friedman (@allanfriedman) January 7, 2019
On December 21, the day the shutdown began, Trump signed another cybersecurity law focused on U.S. supply chains and vulnerabilities. Spaulding said that the law is important and also comes with many deadlines — many of which will slip during a shutdown, delaying the protections the law now requires.
“Monitoring of government systems and responding to significant incidents will likely continue but other important activities, for which demand already exceeds capacity, such as working with departments and agencies to identify and secure their high-value assets, with states to improve election security, and with businesses, including critical infrastructure, to strengthen their resilience to cyber attacks, are almost certainly not exempt and are therefore not happening,” Spaulding said.
About 800,000 federal workers work for agencies that have not had budgets since December 21, meaning they either have been furloughed without pay, or have been forced to work without pay for over two weeks. The uncertainty of how long this will continue causes people to make financial decisions they otherwise may not, such as delaying purchases, dipping into savings, accruing debt, and missing payments.
“Asking people to work weeks without pay places a tremendous burden on them and their families,” said Sam Berger, a senior adviser at the Center for American Progress, who helped to manage the 2013 shutdown while working in the Obama Administration. “It’s a burden, how many people in this country can go a month without pay?” (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.)
This is specifically problematic for Justice Department, State Department and DHS staff. At DHS, there are 5,978 Secret Service staff, 54,935 Border Patrol staff, 15,208 FEMA staff, 44,298 in the Coast Guard, and 55,182 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staff being asked to work without pay.
Hundreds of TSA workers are now calling in sick or staying home to do things like care for children without daycare. This has begun to affect not just the flying public’s experience at airports but also increases the risk of the types of threats the TSA agents are purportedly there to mitigate.
Making people whose jobs are focused on protecting national security more economically vulnerable isn’t just bad for those employees. It also presents a security problem. Forced to work without pay for extended periods of time, potentially being forced into debt or economic insecurity, they could be more susceptible to blackmail. When someone gets a security clearance from the federal government, one of the primary things they check for are debts and gambling problems for this reason.
The shutdown will affect not only Americans working for the federal government, but also foreign staff working in U.S. embassies, which can impact U.S. national security and foreign policy.
“In addition to countries seeing the U.S. government as a mess, locally employed staff at U.S. embassies, who help keep our embassies running, will be directly affected by furloughs or no pay during the shutdown, undermining their faith in America and hurting them economically as well,” said Michael Fuchs, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former state deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “Like U.S. diplomats, locally employed staff at U.S. embassies are part of the backbone of American national security, and Trump’s actions are an assault on these critical partners of America.”
Because of the shutdown, the Interior Department’s Indian Affairs bureau, which provides services to almost 2 million Native Americans, has been having a difficult time stocking food pantry shelves, staffing health clinics, and plowing snowbound roads. The federal government is legally obligated to provide these services to tribal governments through treaties that exchanged the services for large tracts of land. The halting of federal maintenance thanks to the shutdown can have deadly consequences. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS) told local NPR station KCUR Monday that a tribal leader told her “they actually lost a tribal member because they were unable to plow the roads so that an emergency service vehicle could get to him in time.”
National parks, managed by the Interior Department, also lack appropriations thanks to the shutdown. During the government shutdowns between congressional Republicans and President Obama, the Interior Department fully closed national parks because staff weren’t getting paid and there was a concern for visitors’ safety. Unfortunately, since the current shutdown began, three people have died in national parks.
There are also personal safety concerns that can manifest for the general public as the shutdown drags on. Food safety inspectors are considered essential and asked to report for duty, although they are not being paid, and do not know when they will get their next paycheck.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development lacks funding thanks to the shutdown, and two and a half weeks in, over a thousand contracts have expired according to the Washington Post — 5 percent of all contracts under the Section 8 which provides rental assistance to over a million low-income families. With landlords unsure of when or if they will receive expected payments, they could delay critical repairs, ask for more in rent, or even evict families.
No one in Washington, D.C. can get married thanks to the shutdown, which, apart from imperiling romance, also can affect whether people need their partner’s health insurance plans or are applying for permanent residency in the country.
“When you combine the tremendous management challenges posed by a shutdown with the most incompetent administration in modern American history, that’s a recipe for disaster,” said Berger. “They can’t manage government on its best day, let alone its worst.”