Spending billions of dollars to build hundreds of miles of additional walling — or “steel slats” or whatever you want to call it — on the US-Mexico border is a bad idea. That’s a critical, underrated feature of the current standoff that has led President Trump to partially shut down the government.
After all, if the president of the United States wants a $5 billion appropriation for a pet project that’s important to him personally and partially fulfills a campaign promise, then he ought to be able to get it. And the time-honored way to get it is to give congressional skeptics something else in exchange. That’s how the system has worked ever since Alexander Hamilton got James Madison to back federal assumption of state debts in exchange for locating the nation’s capital on the banks of the Potomac River.
But back at the beginning of 2018, when it seemed as though a compromise involving wall money and a path to citizenship for DREAMers was in the works, it was immigration hardliners in Trump’s own administration who scuttled the deal. That’s certainly their prerogative, but it underscores the core truth of this standoff: Immigration hardliners themselves don’t think the wall is especially useful or important in the real world. If they really wanted a wall, they would go get a wall by offering something — it wouldn’t even necessarily have to be immigration-related — in exchange for it. But since they know the wall is a bad idea, they won’t trade it for anything.
Yet precisely because the wall idea is so bad, Democrats, rightly, aren’t going to give it away for free.
The wall is a very bad idea
Obviously there’s nothing silly about the general idea of walls to separate pieces of territory. But if you’ve ever been to the US-Mexico border, chances are you’ve seen that there’s already lots of wall there. Significant swaths of the border are made up of transnational conurbations like San Diego-Tijuana or El Paso-Juarez, where, in the absence of imposing physical barriers, it would be very challenging for Border Patrol to stop people from sneaking across.
What’s left are desolate, uninhabited stretches of border where construction logistics are difficult, crossing is difficult, and the Border Patrol’s detection work is relatively easy.
Meanwhile, over the past 10 years, the rise of export-oriented manufacturing jobs in Mexico plus shifting Mexican demographics has greatly reduced the number of Mexicans who want to come to the United States to work illegally, while the rollout of the Real ID program has made it harder to work illegally. The combined result is that the size of the undocumented immigrant population is falling, driven almost entirely by a million fewer undocumented Mexican nationals living in the United States.
There remain many foreign-born people living illegally in the United States, but nearly two-thirds of them have been here for more than 10 years, and the Pew Research Center estimates that a majority of new unauthorized arrivals initially entered the United States with a valid visa rather than sneaking across a border.
The action at the border these days, in terms of immigration, is about asylum seekers, whole family units who arrive and either cross at legal ports of entry or else deliberately present themselves to Border Patrol after crossing illegally.
This is a legitimately difficult problem, but building extra miles of wall in the middle of nowhere won’t ameliorate it. With even the Trump administration finding itself dumping detained asylum seekers onto the streets of border towns due to a lack of capacity, it’s clear that if we’re going to invest huge new sums of money in the border, it should be to address this problem. More resources are needed to adjudicate asylum claims more rapidly, to secure people with pending claims in sustainable and humane ways, and to assist Central American countries in combating the underlying issues that drive people north.
Immigration hardliners know the wall is a bad idea
The tell here is that when congressional Democrats started getting close to a deal that would swap help for DREAMers for wall money, immigration hawks swooped in — not with quibbles about the details but with a huge set of unrelated demands.
As Dara Lind wrote in January, the White House’s proposed framework for a deal ultimately included “an overhaul of asylum laws, stepped-up interior enforcement, and a broad crackdown on legal immigration on the scale of the Trump-endorsed RAISE Act.” The RAISE Act is a plan to cut legal immigration levels in half, which illustrates how little immigration restrictionists are actually focused on the nominal border security debate that has shut the government down.
But that’s the point. If your goal is to reduce the number of foreign-born people living in the United States by any means necessary, then building an extra 700 miles of border wall is not particularly useful. So extending a path to citizenship for DREAMers or anyone else in exchange for a not-very-useful wall is an unattractive deal.
By the same token, if the wall were extremely useful, then Trump could seek to offset its cost by reducing spending on some other aspect of immigration enforcement. But because the wall is a bad idea, that would be a bad deal and he wouldn’t offer it. He also obviously can’t offer to offset the cost with higher taxes on the rich because that would blow up the Republican Party coalition — a coalition that’s happy to exploit the border wall issue for partisan gain but that at its core is supposed to be delivering money to rich people.
The art of the deal
A Washington Post editorial Friday morning argues that “the way out of the shutdown has been obvious for weeks,” touts the DREAMer-wall swap, scolds the White House for having scuttled it, and then for the sake of balance scolds Nancy Pelosi for having adopted the obvious negotiating tactic of saying she’s no longer interested in the deal.
The truth, however, is that there’s nothing obvious about this.
It seems like a good deal precisely because a path to citizenship for DREAMers is a real, valuable thing that will make a big difference in people’s lives, while the wall is utterly foolish. If you take the anti-immigration position seriously, that makes it a terrible deal. They’d have traded away something real for a bit of political theater.
The true path forward would be the opposite of this — for the White House to admit that the wall is foolish and reopen the government. Then we could begin a legislative negotiation over the topics that are actually in dispute: internal enforcement, asylum law, the treatment of long-settled unauthorized migrants, and future flows of legal immigration. But the Trump administration can’t even admit publicly that Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall, much less admit that the whole wall concept is essentially irrelevant to their immigration policy goals.
As long as that persists, it’s hard to find a way out.