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Republicans must put safety of American people above politics | Opinion

By Donald M. Payne Jr. Star-Ledger Guest Columnist

On Feb. 27, the Department of Homeland Security will run out of funding and shut down vital operations unless Congress passes legislation to fund the agency. Members of Congress have a responsibility to take immediate, bipartisan action to fund the DHS and ensure the security of families here in New Jersey and throughout our nation.

Too many of my Republican colleagues deny the urgency of action. Instead of working with Democrats, Republicans continue to play politics with DHS funding by insisting that any funding bill overturn the President's executive actions on immigration.

In other words, Republicans are holding DHS funding -- and, by extension, the safety of the American people -- hostage, in order to undermine the President's action to protect roughly 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.

House Democrats, meanwhile, have introduced a standalone bill to fund the agency without tying it to immigration.

National security should be above politics, not mired in it. But with their demands, many Republicans are turning national security into a partisan issue that puts our safety at risk.

If Congress fails to pass a DHS funding bill, the consequences will be severe. 

One direct consequence, as DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson warned, is that "we cannot engage in new starts, new spending, new initiatives, new grants to state and local law enforcement to fund homeland security missions."

As Ranking Member of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications, and as the representative of New Jersey's 10th Congressional District, I understand how critically important these grants are to safeguarding our communities. 

In my district, there is a two-mile stretch that terrorism experts call "the most dangerous two miles in America."

Along this stretch, there are numerous potential terrorist targets, including Newark Liberty International Airport, the New Jersey Transit Authority, and the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal.

Think about the potential damage that could result from a terrorist attack on one of these locations, or on one of New Jersey's numerous chemical and petroleum plants.

In my district, there is a two-mile stretch that terrorism experts call "the most dangerous two miles in America."
 

In his April 2014 testimony before the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop explained the value of grant programs to support local emergency management and preparedness efforts.

"Local government officials, including emergency managers and emergency response officials, know best the threats and vulnerabilities in their areas," he testified.

This reality was recognized when, in fiscal year 2014, the Jersey City/Newark Area was allocated nearly $22 million under the Urban Areas Security Initiative, which provides urban areas with financial assistance to prepare for, protect against, and respond to acts of terrorism.

That same year, the Transit Security Grant Program allocated more than $13 million to New Jersey Transit and nearly $3 million to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. This program provides funding to high-threat urban areas for improvements to security measures at critical transit infrastructure.

If the DHS shuts down at the end of the month, such grants would be discontinued -- an outcome New Jersey communities cannot afford.

Protecting Homeland Security grant programs is critical to ensuring our cities, transportation systems, and first responders have the capabilities to prepare for and respond in times of disaster.

First responders, who best understand local vulnerabilities and threats, and who demonstrate an unending commitment to protecting our communities, deserve the tools necessary to quickly and effectively respond to disasters.

That is why I was pleased my bill to improve emergency communications at the DHS, the DHS Interoperable Communications Act, passed the House of Representatives earlier this month by a vote of 379 to 0.

And that is why Congress must fund the DHS and ensure our communities continue receiving grants that support local prevention and preparedness efforts.

Our highest priority as lawmakers is the safety and security of the American people. Democrats are ready to fund the DHS, and it is my hope that Republicans will join us. It's time to cast aside petty political games and take action to keep our nation safe.

Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., a Democrat, represents New Jersey's 10th Congressional District.

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