There are two questions related to the shutdown/border wall issue that I want to address:
- Why has it gone on this long? What are the politics at play here for both sides, because make no mistake about it, this is a political fight. There’s no good, sensible reason for a deal not to be made.
- Is there truly a crisis, potentially rising to the level of a national emergency, happening on the Southern Border as described by the Trump administration?
Let’s start with the politics.
The president thinks holding firm and fighting for the wall is a great issue for him with his base. Democrats think blocking anything the president wants in regards to the wall is a great issue with them for their base. Both sides are right. The problem for the president is that others within his party don’t view this as a winning issue.
You have to look back at what happened in the 2018 midterms. The president made immigration and the wall and the caravan the central issue leading up to Election Day. Republicans did do OK in the Senate, but it was a very favorable map for them. What took place in the House is what’s concerning many inside the party. They went from probably losing anywhere from 24-34 seats to losing 40, along with a number of gubernatorial races and state legislatures. Also, you had two prominent statewide races in border states, New Mexico and Arizona, that went for Democrats.
Many Republicans believe there’s a direct correlation between the president’s rhetoric on immigration and the border and those massive loses, especially in suburban districts and with women. That’s why vulnerable Republican Senators like Susan Collins, Cory Garnder and Thom Tillis are all in favoring of re-opening the government, even if it means no wall funding concession by Democrats. Senator Lisa Murkowski also holds that position, making it likely that a bill to reopen the government without funding for the wall could pass both the House and the Senate if put up for a vote.
It's also important to keep a close eye on House Republicans. As Democrats keep passing bills to open up different parts of the government, pressure will mount on them to cave. That’s why Jared Kushner and Vice President Mike Pence have been busy trying to convince them that public sentiment will soon shift in favor of President Trump.
The pain of the government shutdown is only going to get worse, not better. The vast majority of the government workers who will be hit hard come Friday are not in D.C. They’re making $50,000 or less and live throughout the country. They won't be able to withstand missing paychecks and their stories will be plastered all over cable news and covered by every local paper in the country. The pressure will keep building on each side to cave, but the president is more likely to see cracks grow in his coalition than the Democrats, which is why you've seen the reframing of the issue as a potential national emergency, why you saw an address to the nation tonight and why you will see a trip to the border Thursday.
Which brings us to the other big question: Does what's happening on the Southern Border rise to the level of a national emergency?
A national emergency declaration to secure funding for the border wall would certainly be challenged in court immediately. You can find a great piece here in the Wall Street Journal that explains the constitutionality of such a move. Regardless, it seems clear that the president is likely to have less support for that action than he already has for his stance on the shutdown, especially from his own party. The House Armed Services ranking member, a Republican from Texas, is already on record opposing the use of military money to build the wall under an emergency declaration. That’s likely why President Trump hasn’t already decided to go in that direction, even though it might be the most politically beneficial option he currently has.
Putting the constitutionality question aside, let's focus on are the issues the administration is bringing up that they claim rise to the level of a crisis and whether or not those issues are best solved through the building of a border wall. For the record, I’m in favor of a barrier in certain areas where it makes sense, but I'd prefer it be part of a larger immigration package that addresses the entire problem. As for what’s being discussed now, here are the main issues we've heard about time and time again from the president, including some he brought up in his address to the nation:
- Caravans – We saw two caravans make their way towards our border last year. Neither was anything close to an invasion, despite the president and many of his allies claiming that's exactly what was happening. In fact, both wound up being kind of a nothingburger, including the second and far more publicized one, as demonstrated by the fact the caravan issue was largely ignored after the election was over. So, even without a wall, we’re able to handle caravans and stop people from overrunning our current border enforcement apparatus. That’s not a crisis or an emergency requiring special funding specifically for a wall.
- Drugs – The president's own DEA issued a report in 2018 that said the majority of drugs come through legal ports of entry, usually hidden in vehicles. Also, John Kelly, the former Department of Homeland Security secretary and former Trump chief of staff, stated at a congressional hearing in April 2017 that illegal drugs from Mexico “mostly come through the ports of entry.” Finally, the Coast Guard is only able to action 25% of the intelligence that they receive on drugs coming in to our country, leaving a big hole in our defense against the transport of illegal drugs. There are certainly issues with stopping drugs from getting in, but it's not a crisis or an emergency requiring special funding specifically for a wall.
- Terrorists – Trump’s State Department in July 2017: “There’s no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain entrance into the United States.” A September 2018 report by the State Department said: “The U.S. southern border remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit, although terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter the United States.” According U.S. Customs & Border Protection, for the first half of fiscal year 2018, 41 people were stopped along the southern border whose names were on a terror watchlist. 35 were US citizens or permanent residents. 6 were immigrants. We have no reports on actual arrests of any of those individuals on any kind of terrorism related charge. 41 immigrants whose names were on a watchlist were apprehended on the Northern Border. Also, more than 3,700 were apprehended at airports. So, as you can see, the bigger border problem relating to terror watchlists was along the Northern Border and the biggest problem was at airports. That’s not a crisis or an emergency requiring special funding specifically for a wall along the Southern Border. For more on why terrorists are unlikely to look to the Southern Border to infiltrate the U.S., read this piece in Just Security.
- Illegal Immigration - Border patrol reporterd 303,000 apprehensions for fiscal year 2017, the lowest in more than 45 years. There was a slight uptick last year, but it was still less than half the total of 2007. In fiscal year 2017, 2x’s more people were here illegally because of visa overstays than those who came through the border. These numbers don't indicate a unique and pressing crisis or an emergency requiring special funding specifically for a wall along the Southern Border. They indicate the largest illegal immigration issue is visa overstays and the problem along the border has been alleviated substantially over the past decade due to increased funding for border security. That doesn't mean there isn't more to do and a barrier wouldn't help further depress illegal immigration along the border, it just means we're not in a crisis or special national emergency.
What the president can certainly make the case for is that we have a growing humanitarian crisis along the Southern Border. From Axios:
- The U.S. has received a surge of asylum claims under the Trump administration. There were nine times as many asylum applications filed in 2017 than in 2009. A wall would not end immigrants' legal right to claim asylum.
- Despite the threats of family separation, there were almost 32,000 more family members caught crossing the border in 2018 than in 2017, most of them from Central American countries.
- There has also been a rise in unaccompanied children crossing the border, although those numbers have not reached the highs of 2014 under the Obama administration.
The impact: While the U.S. has seen migrant surges like this in the past, the agencies responsible for processing and caring for immigrants — many of whom have fled serious violence — are overwhelmed.
- Detention centers are consistently at or near capacity.
- Two young children have died in border patrol custody, despite the agency referring hundreds of immigrants for medical care every week, according to CBP.
- There are a record number of children in the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services, and thousands living in what were supposed to be temporary tent cities.
Solving this humanitarian crisis will require more funding and resources, but a wall along the Southern Border won't stop asylum seekers or fix the backlog issue in our immigration courts.
Let’s also not forget that the president recently tweeted twice that the border is currently tight and secure. That doesn’t sound like a national emergency requiring special funding specifically for a border wall. It's also something that will undoubtedly be used against him in court if he were to declare a national emergency.
Finally, keep this in mind if you open up this box: What happens if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020 and decides they want to declare a national emergency to secure funding for climate change initiatives? If you think that's crazy, let me remind you that the Pentagon specifically lists climate change as a national security threat. If we use as weak of an argument for a national emergency as the one we're hearing from the Trump administration in regards to the border wall, those possibilities are no longer unthinkable. Is that the road you want to go down?