President Donald Trump’s prime-time address Tuesday offered little in the way of new facts or convincing arguments that the situation at the Southern border has reached crisis proportions. His fact-challenged assertions aside, the reality remains that illegal crossings are at close to a 20-year low.
Trump’s own Drug Enforcement Administration has said that most illegal drugs are smuggled through official ports of entry, which a border wall would not address. The restructured NAFTA trade deal that Trump referenced, USMCA, has not been ratified and is not designed to send money to the federal treasury for a wall.
In fact, even the amount Trump has sought so ardently, $5.7 billion, is only a fraction of the total projected cost, which a 2017 report by Homeland Security put at $21.6 billion — not counting maintenance. The need for border security is undisputed. A year ago, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer offered Trump support for a wall in exchange for legal protections for some 700,000 “Dreamers.” The collapse of those talks resulted in a three-day shutdown.
Little has changed — except now Trump is dealing with a newly empowered Democratic House, with many of the new members having run in opposition to his hard-line immigration stance. And the three-day shutdown of a year ago has been eclipsed by one that is nearing three weeks and could, according to Trump, stretch on for months or longer.
Trump is playing high-stakes poker; the chips he’s using are taxpayer dollars and federal employee paychecks. Instead of offering a legitimate compromise, he’s threatening to declare a national emergency and simply take what he wants. That would trigger a surefire court challenge, but more importantly would signal a drastic departure from presidential norms. What president would ever negotiate in good faith with Congress again if he or she could simply declare an emergency and tap the treasury directly?
It’s time for a change in tactics. Trump should direct Homeland Security to do what it should have done long ago: Make a thorough needs-assessment of the most vulnerable parts of the border — and they do exist. This assessment should include a nonpartisan determination of which methods would be the most effective at preventing either illegal border crossings or drug smuggling. More agents, more drones, better technology and yes, adding physical barriers where it makes sense to do so, should all be in the mix.
The tool of choice will vary greatly depending upon location. Of the nearly 2,000 miles that separate the U.S. from Mexico, physical barriers exist across nearly 700 miles. They include walls, fences, steel slats, vehicle barriers and more. What remains unfenced is often wild, remote, rugged terrain, along with land held by private owners, mostly in Texas, where they don’t look kindly on eminent domain.
The president could gain the upper hand quickly in this argument if he had demonstrable facts to support his assertion that a wall would be better than other means of achieving maximum security. Bluster and threats have proved ineffective. He failed for two years running to make his case to a Congress controlled top-to-bottom by his own party. On Wednesday, he reportedly walked out of a brief meeting with congressional leaders, declaring it a “waste of time” because they would not concede to his demands.
In the meantime, the consequences of the shutdown continue to mount. The FDA has stopped routine food inspections. The EPA has furloughed 95 percent of its workers. Federal courts are running out of money. Section 8 voucher funding for low-income renters has lapsed. TSA officers are unpaid, as is the Coast Guard. Some 800,000 federal workers will lose a paycheck at the end of this week.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., held out faint hope for a deal he called “wall-plus,” that would essentially resurrect earlier proposed compromises that included money for a wall but also protections for Dreamers and those here under Temporary Protected Status. Such a proposal from the president would at least indicate a serious effort at brokering differences and is far better than a would-be attempt to seize emergency powers. In the meantime, all sides should come together to reopen government while they attempt to reconcile their differences.