I was assigned to the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station in the San Diego Sector when President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich shut down Government operations due to a budget impasse in 1995. As an organization, the Border Patrol experienced all the predictable uncertainty and anxiety that every Government component had to cope with. However, the most detrimental impact on Border Patrol operations went unrecognized by the politicians responsible for the budget mess.
In 1995, sworn Border Patrol Agents were designated “essential” personnel and were required to report for duty, regardless of whether or not they were going to be paid. Nearly all support personnel within the organization were deemed “non-essential” personnel and were placed in a non-paid furlough status. Border Patrol Agents faced a spike in illegal activity because Mexican newspapers were erroneously reporting that all U.S. Government operations were going to be shut down.
As you might imagine, making an arrest or a drug seizure is only the beginning of a long, work-intensive process designed to result in a successful prosecution, deportation or an illegal alien removal.
Phones must be answered. Paperwork must be properly executed and filed. Border Patrol Agents must be dispatched. Sensors must be monitored. Facilities must be maintained. Vehicles must be serviced. “Non-essential” support personnel who normally performed these critical functions were not available, so we were forced to use Border Patrol Agents in their place. Our operational capabilities were literally cut in half for the duration of the shutdown.
The politicians responsible for the debacle repeatedly assured the public that no Border Patrol Agents had been furloughed and that our nation’s borders were as secure during the shutdown as they had been before the shutdown. Sadly, they were likely unaware of the real state of affairs.
This time around, Border Patrol Agents are classified as “excepted” personnel with the same requirement to report for duty. Support personnel are classified as “non-excepted” personnel and they are currently furloughed without pay. The situation today is like it was in 1995, but the critical support staff responsible for keeping the agency running smoothly will not have to bear the stigma of a “non-essential” label. At least our political leaders are trying to be more sensitive while engaging in idiocy.