In El Paso, a border city grows uneasy over shutdown

The World
Migrants from Central America are seen escorted by US. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials after crossing the border from Mexico to surrender to the officials in El Paso, Texas in this pictured taken from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

As one of the largest cities along the US-Mexico border, El Paso hosts several federal agencies tasked with monitoring the movement of people and commerce between the two nations. The city is home to thousands of customs, Border Patrol and drug enforcement agents. As “essential” employees, the partial government shutdown has forced many of them to work without pay — and they’re growing increasingly stressed.

James Montanez, a retired customs officer and member of the US Customs and Border Protection union, is outspoken about the anxieties felt by his colleagues still on the job.

“We’re short 2,500 employees,” Montanez said. “Right now, because of the shutdown, the employees who got hired … they’re not getting trained.”

On Thursday, the Senate will hold a pair of competing votes to reach a compromise aimed at restarting normal government operations. The sticking point continues to be President Donald Trump’s insistence on $5.7 billion for a border wall. Democrats have presented a bill that would temporarily fund the government through Feb. 8 without a wall — which would give the parties more time to negotiate border security  — while the Republican legislation funds the wall but includes harsh new restrictions for asylum-seekers. Neither measure is expected to pass.

Related: This busy LA immigration court is now a ‘ghost town’ in wake of government shutdown

A border wall would do nothing to stop the hundreds of thousands of pounds of illegal drugs smuggled annually through the official ports of entry. These are the border crossings where customs agents like Montanez are posted. Millions of people legally enter the US through them daily. They’re also the portal for commercial cargo, which represents more than half a trillion dollars in annual trade between Mexico and the US.

Montanez attended a town hall last weekend organized by two freshman Congresswomen representing districts along the US-Mexico border: Veronica Escobar of El Paso and Xochitl Torres Small, who represents the southern half of New Mexico.

Understaffing, he told the representatives, has resulted in officers working overtime multiple days in a row. Like 800,000 other federal employees nationwide, they’re now facing the possibility of a second missed paycheck Friday as the shutdown heads toward its fifth week.

“They got some officers who can’t pay their childcare. We are being used as a pawn in a political game.”

James Montanez, retired customs officer

“They got some officers who can’t pay their childcare,” Montanez said. “We are being used as a pawn in a political game.”

Rather than fund a wall, Congresswoman Escobar said she believes a smarter investment would include better infrastructure and more staff at the ports of entry.

“This is the moment where we have to stand firm and say ‘you will not hold these federal employees hostage,’” she said. “Their stress and anxiety is so palpable.”

Related: Have ‘17,000 criminals’ really been apprehended at the US-Mexico border? 

Escobar and Torres Small are among the nine House representatives whose districts line the US-Mexico border — and all have opposed Trump’s border wall. The group includes one Republican. Instead of a wall, many of them have said they’ll fund other forms of border security, such as technology and equipment. The Department of Homeland Security is already the highest funded federal law enforcement agency, receiving more money than all other agencies combined.

The federal government is a major employer in both El Paso and New Mexico. Eighteen percent of all US government jobs in El Paso are federal. In addition to the heavy presence of the Department of Homeland Security, the surrounding region also includes three military bases.

In El Paso, the kind of high steel fencing Trump favors has been in place for the last decade. It cuts between the US city and its Mexican counterpart, Ciudad Juárez. While these barriers have helped reduce crime and foot traffic in some neighborhoods, they’re not very effective against the current trend in migration to the US.

Record numbers of Central American families are showing up at the southern border, many seeking asylum — often to apply for asylum, which US and international law entitles them to do even if they’ve crossed the border illegally. Rather than trying to evade Border Patrol agents, they typically turn themselves in.

Related: The ‘real’ border crisis: The US immigration system isn’t built for kids and families. 

Central American families arrive in downtown El Paso after being processed and released by federal immigration authorities.
Central American families arrive in downtown El Paso after being processed and released by federal immigration authorities.Monica Ortiz Uribe/The World

Federal workers in El Paso whose jobs aren’t connected to border security are also affected by the shutdown. Air traffic controllers at the local airport can’t hire a contractor to fix the elevator that takes them up the tower where they work. Instead, they have to go up and down 15 flights of stairs several times a day to get to their office, an inconvenience that’s both physically taxing and time-consuming.

Some federal workers have also begun to show up at food pantries and soup kitchens, according to Susan Goodell, CEO of the El Paso Food Bank.

“The challenges we’re seeing at the food bank really can’t be underestimated,” she said.

The food bank provides 35,000 meals for people in need daily. A third of its food comes directly from the federal government, as does a quarter of its annual funding. The people they feed include both low-income seniors and children at 182 local schools who rely on free breakfast and lunch. All this is at risk during the shutdown, Goodell said.  

“Every food bank in this country is feeling the exact same pain,” she said. “All of us are deeply concerned about where the food will come from to supply the people already in need, but also the federal workers who are coming to our doors needing additional food.”

If the shutdown doesn’t end soon, the food bank may also see greater need from 173,000 locals who rely on food stamps: The federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, which feeds some 40 million Americans, is funded through February but not March.  With looming potential for increased demand, Goodell said she doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting over the importance of a border wall.

“It doesn’t capture a moment of my attention,” she said. “What keeps me up at night is how are we going to feed the people who need the food.”

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