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Border Agents Would Work through a Homeland Security Shutdown

A Border Patrol truck traveling on US 90 between Alpine and Marfa. (Armand Morin)

As the showdown in Washington over funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) gets closer to a Friday deadline, two lawmakers in Virginia are pushing a last-minute bill that would guarantee that border agents and other homeland security employees receive backpay if a deal isn't reached by the deadline.

Republican Representatives Don Beyer and Rob Wittman introduced the "DHS Employee Retroactive Pay Act" on Tuesday.

The lawmakers say the bill's aim is to provide "a degree of certainty" for the department's employees, who for the most part would be expected to work through a homeland security shutdown.

"[Border Patrol] agents are exempt from furlough, so they will continue to do their jobs," says Bill Brooks with the Border Patrol's Big Bend Sector.

Gil Kerlikowske - Commissioner for the Border Patrol's parent agency Customs and Border Protection (CBP) - is pushing for Congress to come up with a funding solution, saying a shutdown would have "significant" impact on cross-border trade, and on DHS employees directly.

"I don't think the holder of your mortgage or the hospital or anyone else is going to be overly sympathetic to the fact that you're working but not being paid," Kerlikowske says, adding that he's worried about the detrimental effects a shutdown would have on morale across the agency.

According to the latest available numbers from CBP, 588 Border Patrol agents in West Texas and about 10,000 across the state would work without pay if a funding deal isn't reached by Friday. The shutdown would also affect CBP officers at the nation's border crossings and Transportation Security Administration officers at airports, among others.

Kerlikowske says the bill proposed by the White House contains essential funding for video surveillance technology that he says his agency needs for patrolling the South Texas border.

That area that saw a large influx of migrants from Central America last summer, and could see a similar surge this year.

"We need that upgraded video technology to be able to maintain situational awareness," he says. "Are there more kids coming, are there more problems, and if so, where are they coming into that very large, vast and extremely difficult area for anyone to patrol."

Meanwhile, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has offered up a so-called "clean" funding bill that wouldn't contain stipulations on President Obama's executive action on immigration - the crux of the disagreement that's caused the stalemate so far.

Still, McConnel says he'll introduce a separate bill to fight the president's action, which would temporarily protect about four million people living in the U.S. illegally from deportation.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.