What A Homeland Security Shutdown Means To The U.S.V.I.

With the U.S. Department of Homeland Security facing immediate shutdown over Republican Party opposition to President Barack Obama relaxing deportation policies, what will happen to the U.S.V.I.?

Friday evening, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives first rejected a temporary funding bill, then late in the evening passed a more limited version that would keep the department open for one week. The impasse remains.

It could have an enormous impact on the territory if some Homeland Security actions ceased. That department oversees the National Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among many other agencies.

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If all Customs inspections ceased, would goods and people be able to travel in and out of the islands? Can we respond to an emergency if FEMA is shut down?

Fortunately, most local operations will continue despite a shutdown and the main short-term problem will be payless paydays for a lot of federal employees.

According to the White House website, most Homeland Security employees are considered too essential to the nation’s security to be furloughed, so they would have to work without pay.

About 75 to 80 percent of workers will have to come to work without pay, including Customs officials and the Coast Guard, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement Feb. 24. Nationwide, roughly 240,000 workers would have to work without pay and 30,000 would be furloughed, according to Johnson. Many of those furloughed are in FEMA, but they are subject to recall in case of emergency.

So Customs would keep processing airline passengers and the territory’s ports and airports will not close and the Coast Guard will continue to patrol the seas.

While it may not send everyone home, the V.I. National Guard would be hit hard if Homeland Security funds stop flowing this or next week. The V.I. National Guard projects to receive $44.8 million in federal funding this year. As that funding comes through Homeland Security, most or all of that would stop for as long as this budget impasse remains. If all that funding stops temporarily, that would represent an average of about $4 million per month taken out of the local economy.

While emergency functions will continue, "service providers and suppliers" of Homeland Security "do not get paid during the period of shutdown," Johnson said. That means service providers for the V.I. National Guard and for federal agencies like Customs will not be paid during the interim, with whatever ripple effects that delay has on the local economy.

So even though most Homeland Security functions will not cease altogether and the territory will not be instantly crippled by a Homeland Security shutdown, any long shutdown will pull money out of a struggling economy and be a hardship for hundreds of National Guard members and other Virgin Islanders whose pay comes from Homeland Security.

Editor’s Note: This story has been amended to reflect Congress approving a one-week extension of funding for Homeland Security.

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