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Here's what would happen if the Department of Homeland Security shut down

A rug at a DHS building.
A rug at a DHS building.

Congress has passed a short-term bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for another week. But it's still not clear whether it will be able to secure funding past that. So a department shutdown is no longer looking extremely likely, but it's still a possibility.

Some Republicans and members of the press have been trying to minimize the impact of the shutdown, by emphasizing the fact that 85 percent of DHS employees will still report to work (though they won't get paid until after the shutdown ends). Meanwhile, DHS officials have been warning that a shutdown could imperil national security (and hyping terrorist threats, such as a supposed al-Shabaab plot to target American malls). "It's absurd that we're even having this conversation about Congress's inability to fund Homeland Security in these challenging times," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told CNN.

The truth is that there are definitely costs to a shutdown — not least for the employees who wouldn't be getting paid. But a DHS shutdown isn't likely to have much impact on the front lines of national security.

Why doesn't "shutdown" mean a complete shutdown of the department?

government shutdown

Parks? Yes. DHS? No. (Jewel Samad/AFP)

In a funding shutdown, certain types of federal employees are still required to report to work — the term the government uses is that they're "exempt" from the shutdown. One of the categories of "exempt" employees is anyone whose work is "necessary for safety of human life or protection of property." That category covers a lot of DHS employees.

On February 27, hours before the shutdown was scheduled to take effect, DHS published its contingency plan for how it would work in practice. 87 percent of DHS employees would be considered "exempt" and required to work. The other 13 percent would be "furloughed," or forced to stay home without pay.

DHS computer

Furloughed. (Alex Wong/Getty)

Would employees get paid to come to work?

Though exempt employees have to come into work, they don't get paid during a shutdown.

If and when Congress finally passed a bill to fund the department — either through a formal appropriations bill or just a temporary stopgap — the employees who have had to go into work because they're "exempt" would get back pay made up. The other employees of the DHS — the ones who weren't called into work — would not, unless Congress explicitly added their back pay to whatever bill eventually gets passed.

Of course, even if an employee will get paid eventually, going into work without pay for an indefinite amount of time could be a serious strain. The National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Border Patrol agents, said in a statement last week that "The last time Congress withheld funding for DHS, some agents were unable to pay their mortgages, and many struggled to make ends meet."

Which parts of DHS really would stop working?

DHS shutdown bureaucracy

The hardest-hit parts of the department would be the central DHS bureaucracy: the Office of the Secretary would only get 14 percent of employees exempted; the Office of the Undersecretary for Management would have 12 percent of its employees coming into work; and the office of Analysis and Operations would be staffed at 48 percent.

Other hard-hit agencies: the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (which runs trainings for state and local police as well as federal law enforcement agents); the Science and Technology Directorate; and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (a small office to begin with, numbering just over 100 people).

What about [Border Patrol/FEMA/Secret Service/TSA/other front-line agency of your liking]?

DHS shutdown front line

At agencies that are on the front lines of homeland security, most employees count as "necessary for safety of human life or protection of property." So over 90 percent of the Secret Service and the TSA, and nearly 90 percent of Customs and Border Protection, would still report to work in the event of a shutdown. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement would have around 80 percent of employees reporting; FEMA will have two-thirds.)

Those cuts are further targeted within those agencies. In 2013, when DHS put out an even more detailed contingency plan for the shutdown that affected most of the federal government, Border Patrol agents, for example, weren't staying home, but most people working in the payroll and expenses office for Customs and Border Protection were.

border patrol gunboat

(John B. Carnett/Popular Science)

Would it shut down the Obama administration's executive actions on immigration?

For the moment, the programs that President Obama announced in November 2014 to protect millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation are on hold anyway, thanks to a court battle over their legality.

But the irony is that if they weren't, they wouldn't be affected by a DHS shutdown. And the existing program that President Obama rolled out in 2012, which has to date protected 700,000 unauthorized immigrants from deportation and is still accepting applications and renewals of protection, will still be running.

That's not because Obama's immigration actions are considered important for human safety. It's because the agency that processes immigration applications, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, is funded almost entirely by application fees — not by funding from Congress. So they're exempt from the shutdown for the simple reason that they don't rely on Congress for funding.

That means that applications for citizenship, green cards, work visas, etc. will still be processed — as will applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for young unauthorized immigrants.

Ironically, the one part of USCIS that is funded by Congress, and would have to shut down, is the federal government's program that electronically checks whether someone is authorized to work in the US — a program Republicans really like. The House Judiciary Committee is taking up a bill next week that would make that program, known as E-Verify, mandatory for all employers. But during a shutdown, it would be out of commission.

What else would be affected?

DHS gives out over a billion dollars to local and state governments for emergency preparedness and local security. In the event of a shutdown, those grants don't get administered.

SWAT team manhunt

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

But they already weren't getting administered. That's because the funding  DHS was using before this deadline, and the funding that just got extended, was the result of a temporary stopgap that Congress passed in December, which just carried over existing funding levels through February 27th. That didn't allow DHS to give out any new grants.

Some state and local governments who rely on the grants are deeply concerned about DHS' funding situation. But they'll only going to be helped once Congress passes a full funding bill — not another stopgap.