“I can pay my house payment and the bills this month, but only my house payment next month. I can’t be too sure about the bills.”
Sam is a federal officer, part of the multitude of local workers whose agencies collaborate to maintain border security and inspect travelers as the cross through ports of entry. He asked that I not use his real name, nor specify his position. Unpaid or furloughed federal employees have been asked not to speak to the press during the shutdown of the federal government.
Like many of his colleagues, Sam is concerned about the effects of the shutdown. As is common in the area surrounding the US-Mexico border, he took a job with the federal government less out of a sense of patriotism and more out of a desire for a steady income, good benefits, and a clear path for advancement. As the main breadwinner for a growing family, he felt secure in the knowledge that he would be able to provide for his wife and children without difficulty.
Before the government shutdown, this was true.
Now, as government workers have been on forced leave or working without pay for nearly a month, Sam is feeling the squeeze. Anxiety mounts as he contemplates next month’s bills. He shows up for work every day, sometimes even working double shifts, not knowing when he will see his next paycheck.
Before he became a federal employee, Sam was mostly neutral on the subject of the border. His family is comprised of both immigrants and U.S.-born citizens. Raised primarily in the United States, he took his young family to live in Tijuana — where rent is cheaper — during a difficult economic time years ago. Certainly he has never entertained virulent anti-immigrant views. After beginning his work with the U.S. government, Sam’s awareness of border issues was inevitably heightened. Still, he doesn’t see a crisis of larger proportions, as President Trump has touted.
“The ‘crisis’ has always been there, people trying to smuggle drugs and/or people, and people trying to come in with fraudulent documents. People always try to come in one way or another.” The number of people applying for asylum has increased over the years, Sam notes, and that wave of potential immigrants puts pressure on an already strained immigration system.
He scoffs at the notion, posited by President Trump, that approval of funding for a border wall is sufficient motivation for federal workers to continue without pay.
Last month, Trump stated, “Many of those workers have said to me, communicated, stay out until you get the funding for the wall. These federal workers want the wall.” Sam notes that in San Ysidro there are many areas crisscrossed by three fences, many of them relatively new. While he observes attempts to smuggle both drugs and people through designated ports of entry, he is unsure that adding a wall to the existing set of fences will inhibit the flow in any way. In the meantime, his paycheck is being held hostage, and his family finances look more tenuous with each passing day.
“Not many of us are willing to work without a paycheck as Trump says.”
Talking with his coworkers, Sam has heard the same sentiment echoed. While they take seriously their commitment to protect the border, and even in some cases support the construction of a border wall, doing so without pay does not appear to be a sword upon which the majority wish to die. Instead they worry about the impact of a long-term furlough, a government shutdown which according to President Trump, could last for “months, or even years.” While Sam is confident that he will receive back pay when the government reopens, he still has to find a way to pay the mortgage and keep his water and electricity connected for the moment. His children outgrow clothes and shoes at the alarming rate most children seem to grow precisely when money is scarce.
Sam shows up to work each day, diligent as always, even without pay. As a parent, he has compelling reasons to want to stem the flow of drugs passing through ports of entry. Still, as the prospect of a months-long furlough looms large, worry chips away at him. He double-checks his bank balances, puts on his uniform, and crosses his fingers that the power struggle over a border wall he isn’t even certain will help will soon come to an end.