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The political battle in Washington has real economic implications for McAllen, Texas

The border town is home to people who depend on their paychecks from their Homeland Security jobs

(CNN) —  

For residents of this town just across the bridge from Mexico, it’s hard to understand how a Washington political fight could end up threatening the livelihood of people charged with securing the border.

“What incentive do they have to keep protecting us if they’re not getting paid?” asked Cecilia De La Cruz as she sat at a coffee shop with a friend. “It is troubling.”

The latest example of congressional dysfunction has real world implications here, where thousands of agents monitor the U.S. border with Mexico. The agents, along with other employees vital to national security such as TSA screeners, will have to show up to work without being paid if Congress misses a Friday deadline to keep the Department of Homeland Security funded. Thousands of other agency workers will be furloughed.

The employees are caught up in a fight over immigration policy.

Republicans want to tie funding for the department to legislation that would roll back President Barack Obama’s immigration executive orders – a nonstarter for Democrats. The battle reached a fevered pitch last week when Congress narrowly missed a deadline to avoid a partial DHS shutdown, giving themselves an extension until March 6 to broker a deal.

READ: Rumblings of Boehner coup in DHS fight

Speaker John Boehner could try to avert another showdown by holding a vote as early as Tuesday on a DHS bill that doesn’t touch Obama’s immigration order. But the political intrigue isn’t registering for some residents here.

’I guess we’re going to find out’

Angelea Remorin, a nurse who works nights at a hospital, said she wasn’t concerned yet because she hadn’t read or heard anything about the potential shutdown.

“Me, personally, I peek into the news every now and then, but it’s things like ISIS, you know, those big headline things, that I look at on the news,” she said. “None of my friends have been talking about (the shutdown), and I haven’t been keeping up with it.”

At the coffee shop with De La Cruz, Ronaldo Delacruz said he’d heard of the potential shutdown but didn’t feel unsafe.

“I don’t know what’s going to necessarily happen to the department itself,” Delacruz said. “I don’t know how that’s going to affect the protection of the border or border patrol, but I guess we’re going to find out.”

Marco Solis said he was mad after hearing that Congress agreed to keep DHS running for only a few days. He said he wonders why lawmakers don’t realize how their decisions affect local areas.

“They’re a bunch of incompetent men who just can’t figure it out,” he said. “And I know not all of them are men, but say predominantly, old white men screwing up this country.”

Local employees of the Department of Homeland Security stationed along the border said they weren’t allowed to speak to newsgroups on the record because of orders directly from Washington. But speaking without attribution, they did express frustration with Congress for defunding their department in 2013 as part of the broader government shutdown and possibly again later this week if a longer term funding bill isn’t passed.

READ: What happens if DHS shuts down

The agents argued they have families to feed and mortgages to pay, just like anyone else.

Chris Cabrera, the vice president of the Local 3307 National Border Patrol Council, a union for border agents, echoed those sentiments. He said that in the McAllen area, about 2,000 agents would be affected by this funding bill.

’It’s pretty much out of our hands’

He said the problem is in Washington, where Congress won’t feel the direct effect of a possible funding gap. As a border patrol agent for 13 years who also felt the effect of the 2013 shutdown, he remembers how it went down last time.

“It’s pretty much out of our hands” he said. “The sad part is that we’re the football in this political game, and we’re just caught in the middle getting tossed around while somebody is trying to push their own agenda, one way or the other.”

In the meantime, he said he’s working with local agents to help them send letters to their mortgage companies to alert them of the possible problems because most of them are considered essential personnel and will have to continue working without a paycheck. For now, he said that’s all that the union can do to help.

“At some point, people will jump ship,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a rush for the door, but we will have some people that are gonna say ‘Enough is enough. This is twice in two years, and I’m done with this.’ “

If a shutdown were to happen later this week, Cabrera said that nonessential personnel, such as administration positions in the department, would not report to work. Agents would continue to work securing the border, but depending on how long the shutdown lasts, they’d eventually have to work in some of the administrative positions as well to make up for employees who were furloughed.

“Most likely what will happen is that they’ll have to pull agents who do frontline work, processing work, or stuff in the station,” he said. “They’re going to have to backfill them – you know somebody has to answer the phones at the front of the building.”

The cartels in Mexico are keeping tabs

He added that he believes the cartels in Mexico are keeping up with American news so that they can take advantage in case DHS does shut down.

“They know,” Cabrera said about anyone across the border hoping to bring people or drugs. “They scout us when our shift changes. They know everything that’s coming along. And when they see stuff like this, when it hits the media, they start mobilizing.”

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling agreed and said he believes cartels and gangs are more tuned in about what’s going on in Washington than his own constituents.

“I would think there’s Gulf Cartel guys listening to Washington right now,” he said. “If they think there’s a porous border, they’re going to come and make some money.”

Darling says that Washington’s actions have a “ripple effect” across the country, of which they should be more aware and considerate.

“I don’t know about you, but I seriously doubt a congressman can go without a paycheck,” he said. “It’s a bipartisan problem, and they have to come up with a bipartisan solution, and they’re not.”