During his oval office address, President Trump painted a dire picture of the southwest border, which has left him no choice but to shut down the government. The president’s speech was, however, a sleight of hand that obscures the real dispute and misrepresents the issues at the border.
The core disagreement remains the president’s demand for $5.7 billion for border wall funding. While what the president wants has and likely will continue to change, at its base the president wants to deliver on his campaign promise of building a wall.
Whatever their political strategy, congressional Democrats have sound reasons for opposing him. The president’s wall is an expensive solution that offers marginal, if any, actual benefits for addressing the key problems at the southwest border.
Far from being out of control, illegal border crossings remain at modern, historically low levels. Indeed, any crisis at the border is of the president’s own making: the breakdown of the asylum process and the failure to properly care for asylum seekers.
The president’s wall might have some marginal deterrent effect, but the human smuggling organizations are creative and adaptable. Show them a 20-foot wall, and they will find a 25-foot ladder or a tunnel. To be sure, barriers are part of a sound border security strategy, but they are not a standalone solution.
Nor does the wall solve the other problems the president raised. Drug smuggling, in particular of opioids and methamphetamine, is a serious concern. But the majority of drugs are smuggled through the ports of entry. Funding for the “wall” will do nothing to address the funding shortage for ports of entry.
The stream of asylum seekers from Central America has created humanitarian, legal, and operational problems. The wall will not stop those people from coming; so long as conditions in Central America remain terrible, people will leave for a better life here. Nor does the wall fix the immigration court system or address flaws in U.S. immigration law that are being exploited.
Setting aside the president’s dubious assertions of a connection between illegal aliens and crime, his own policies are preventing an effective removal strategy. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should, as they were directed to do during the Obama Administration, focus their investigations and removal efforts on criminal aliens and gangs. The president’s policies have sent ICE after any illegal alien, criminal or not, and strained relationships with local communities and police forces. And, of course, a wall will not remove a criminal alien already here.
So long as the wall remains the focus, the only thing it is stopping is a compromise to reopen the government. Congressional Democrats and Republicans need to reorient the discussion in order to move forward. Counterintuitively, the president’s address may offer a path to do so.
By attempting to connect a host of real border problems to the shutdown, the president has opened the door for Congress to focus on border security more generally. Congress can appropriate $5.7 billion (or more) for “border security” to address technology and staffing shortages at ports of entry; housing and care costs for asylum seekers; pay, retention, and agent staffing levels, as well as additional technology for the Border Patrol; upgrades to border fencing and infrastructure; aid to Central America; and reforming the immigration court system.
Given the current state of gridlock, the idea of bipartisan agreement over border security sounds crazy. But the current dysfunction is a sharp deviation from a decades long, bipartisan effort to address border security. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations each made substantial commitments to addressing illegal border activity, and bipartisan coalitions in Congress supported these efforts. It is the Trump Administration that has broken with this tradition and setback progress on securing the border.
If White House and congressional negotiators can think bigger, they can deliver something that can achieve agreement and actually solve some problems along the way.
Nate Bruggeman held senior policy positions at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during the Obama Administration. He is currently an affiliate of the Homeland Security Project at the Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School.