Domestic Policy

The Phony Debate Over The Wall

What should be a serious debate about immigration policy has been hijacked by a simple-minded cartoon debate over a phony campaign promise to build a wall.

Like it or not, there is a crisis on our southern border.  If you don’t like the word “crisis,” it’s probably because that perfectly good word has become yet another victim of Trump’s assault on truth and language.  If you prefer, call it “chaos,” as does the New York Times.  The Times’ recent piece, “The Price of Trump’s Migrant Deterrence Strategy: New Chaos on the Border,” paints a grim picture.

The number of migrants crossing the border from Mexico exceeded 25,000 in November, the highest number ever recorded.  “A border security network built over a period of decades to handle large numbers of single men has in the past several years been inundated with women and children, and as the number of families has peaked in recent months, the system has increasingly been unable to accommodate all of them.”

The system is overloaded.

The daily population of detainees at Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities averages over 45,000.  According to the Washington Post, the record numbers of migrant families streaming into the United States are “overwhelming border agents and leaving holding cells dangerously overcrowded with children, many of whom are falling sick. Two Guatemalan children taken into U.S. custody died in December.” 

Despite its complexity, there are only two moving parts to the border crisis.  One is finding a way to better control the flow of undocumented immigrants entering the United States.  The other is finding a way to treat those who manage to cross the border in a more efficient and humane fashion.

There are ways to improve, if not entirely eliminate, both of these issues. 

In order to establish better control over the border, Congress could appropriate additional funds for more immigration and Border Patrol agents.  Points of entry could be hardened.  More up-to-date technology could be provided.  Existing physical barriers can be shored up, and yes, new barriers can be erected at carefully selected high-vulnerability locations where nothing else works. 

The humanitarian crisis could be improved by keeping families together, building and providing better access to more humane detention facilities, better training for border agents, improved transportation and medical support, more expeditious and efficient adjudication of amnesty claims, and the like. The list of possible improvements is endless.

It is a sign of our dysfunctional times that the immigration stalemate that shut down our government didn’t arise from disagreements about these key issues.   

Democrats support border security.  Although he has used it more as a political weapon than an attempt to find common ground, President Trump is correct when he points out that Democrats have historically supported strong measures to improve border security, including physical barriers where appropriate.  Like a stopped clock, even Trump occasionally stumbles onto the truth.

And Republicans are not entirely opposed to taking steps to ease the humanitarian crisis.  The Trump administration’s current proposal includes $800 million for “urgent humanitarian needs.”  The inclusion of this demand may be rooted more in trying to back Democrats into a negotiating corner than in a sincere desire to ease conditions for immigrants, and the number may be woefully small.  Still, it is an admission that the administration’s immigration policy has led to a humanitarian nightmare, and it is something Democrats could latch onto in negotiating a settlement.       

Yet the vast majority of public debate over this crisis isn’t about any of this.  Instead, our “leaders” are locked into a largely semantic, hyper-politicized debate over a phony Trump campaign promise: “The Wall.”

Never mind that nobody knows, or even seems to care, exactly what is meant by The Wall.  Where?  How wide?  How high?  Made of what?  Why do we need it? Can it really have an impact on reducing drugs, crime and terrorism? Are there better alternatives? None of that matters.

All that matters is that Trump is for The Wall and Democrats are against it.

Trump is locked in.  Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and other keepers of Trump’s right-wing populist base have made it clear that Trump cannot renege on his campaign promise without losing the only support he has left.  Trump has heard them, and his response has been to create a phony crisis about a non-existent deluge of drug dealers, rapists and terrorists flooding over the southern border.

Democrats are also locked in. 

They cannot be seen as backing down to Trump.  The Democratic base views The Wall as not just a policy issue, but a moral issue.  Because Trump has so successfully branded The Wall as the physical embodiment of border security, Democratic leaders seem reluctant to concede publicly that, yes, an out-of-control southern border could create criminal and national security problems (albeit not the phony, overhyped crisis described by Trump) that could be addressed, at least in some part, by erecting strategically placed, well-planned and intelligently constructed physical barriers.

For Trump, the way out of this mess follows a predictable, well-trodden path.

He’s going to lie his way out of it.

Pretend that a genuine humanitarian crisis on the southern border is actually a security crisis that threatens the safety of every American.  Protect the women and children!  Pretend that Democrats are resisting all border security, not just The Wall, and that they are doing so out of nothing more than personal animus toward Trump himself. 

To what end?  Can Trump possibly believe that this will force Democrats to the bargaining table where they will bend to his will? 

If that half-baked plan doesn’t work – and it won’t – Trump is threatening to go rogue.  Declare a national emergency, order the military to erect some kind of a barrier somewhere along the border, take a picture of it, call it The Wall, and declare victory.

For the Democrats, it’s a little more complicated.   They could start by embracing border security, making it their own issue, rather than handing it to Trump on a silver platter.  They need to somehow decouple the real issue of border security from the phony issue of The Wall.  Otherwise they will only play into Trump’s branding of them as weak and indifferent to the problems, both real and made-up, on the southern border. 

Democrats could even outflank Trump from the right.  They could point out, loudly, that what Trump is demanding is not enough.  If we really want to do all that needs to be done to fix our problems on the southern border, they might say, we need more than Trump wants, not less. Provided, of course, that none of our precious taxpayer dollars are to be squandered to give Trump a fig leaf to cover his promiscuous campaign promise of a “big, beautiful Wall.”

Beefing up their position on border security would have the collateral benefit of lending credibility and weight to the Democrats’ demands to address the humanitarian crisis.  Their chances of enacting legislation that will protect Dreamers, improve conditions for detained immigrants, streamline the process for seeking asylum, protect undocumented workers from exploitation by unscrupulous employers, and so on, would all be greatly enhanced by taking a strong, principled position on border security.

Still, it feels naïve to believe that any solution to the current stalemate won’t be more of an exercise in face-saving than a substantive legislative compromise.  Neither Trump nor the Democrats can be seen to be caving in to the other. 

Both will demand a scenario that allows them to claim victory, or at least save face.  That probably means we will get, at best, watered down solutions to both border security and the humanitarian crisis.

That, in turn, will trigger yet another pointless debate:

Who won?

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  1. Thanks, Philip, this covers all that I’ve been thinking. Can you submit this as an op-ed to the New York Times or, better yet, the Wall Street Journal?

    Cheers! Hope you are well!


  2. No one sets forth an argument more reasonably or clearly than you, Phil. Thank you for sharing your clear thinking.
    Ps. I think his base should pay for the wall.

  3. Philip,
    Here is the fundamental dilemma as I see it: (1) A border wall, fence, barrier is proven around the world to retard illegal passage (by the way, it is a federal criminal offense to cross the US border illegally–but, not a federal criminal offense to be in the US illegally, go figure this one); (2) A wall to me is un-American. For me, number two outweighs number one. Call me inscrutably obsolete, if you will, regarding one of my perceived American values.

    Could not five billion dollars be effectively applied to better border security without building a stinking wall? Five billion is small to the US treasury, but large to all the extra hired border patrol agents, technology and electronic security vendors, law enforcement supply vendors, large to border communities that serve border security personnel–and on and on. A wall is a sunk expense that over time probably would save some of the associated costs of apprehending illegal crossers. Five billion invested differently now could energize southern border economies with dollars that probably would turn over five times within each border community–and still improve the security issue.

    Regardless of any of my preceding rationale, a wall is just not an American thing to do. This ain’t Israel.

    1. Agree. To my thinking, there’s a subtle, but very real difference between a “Wall” and using carefully selected physical barriers, of whatever description, in a handful of highly strategic locations that can’t otherwise be controlled. I’m trying to organize my thoughts on that right now, and if I get to a place that I think works, I’ll be publishing something on that soon.

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