For months leading up to the midterm elections, President Donald Trump crisscrossed the country warning Americans about the urgent crisis at the border: A migrant caravan was about to “invade,” he said.
At the time, polls showed Republicans responding to the “crisis” viscerally. Undocumented immigrants crossing the border topped the list of issues angering Republican voters, according to a survey conducted by Reuters and Ipsos. A Republican-led Congress had yet to fund Trump’s wall. By November, 37 percent of Republicans cited immigration as the country’s top problem, according to Gallup — up 17 points from October.
Then the election happened. House Republicans lost the majority, Trump was no longer on the campaign trail, and the caravan was no longer an “urgent” crisis. The share of Republicans citing immigration as the top problem declined to 29 percent.
Trump is back at it, calling for a wall to stop a “humanitarian crisis.” And Republicans are worried about the border again. Seventy-two percent of Republican voters believe Trump when he says a national security crisis is underway on the southern border, according to an early January poll from Morning Consult and Politico.
The reality on the border is very different. Contrary to Trump’s account, illegal border crossings are way down (apprehensions on the border are at the lowest they’ve been since the 1970s). And, ironically, those living less than 350 miles from the border are the least likely to back building Trump’s border wall, according to a 2017 Pew report.
Trump’s rhetoric, rather than reflecting reality, is designed to stoke fear. We’ve seen this pattern before, the last time he sounded the alarm bells about an “urgent” border crisis — a migrant caravan “invasion” (that didn’t happen). When Trump cries immigration “crisis,” Republicans listen. When he stops talking about it, their fear appears to fade.
But this time, the government has shut down over Trump’s border wall. And Republican lawmakers are faced with what happens when they leave a manufactured crisis untouched.
Why this is another manufactured immigration crisis
Trump is painting a very specific portrait of the border.
“How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?” Trump said during a televised Oval Office address this week. “To those that refuse to compromise in the name of border security, I would ask, imagine if it was your child, your husband, or your wife whose life was so cruelly shattered and totally broken.”
The facts are very different, as Vox has written:
- Contrary to Trump’s depiction, states with more unauthorized immigrants have slightly less violent crime, not more. A similar methodology also suggests unauthorized immigration is associated with significant reductions in nonviolent crime.
- A study looking at metro areas and overall immigration, both legal and illegal, likewise found that immigration is associated with lower crime.
- Immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans, and unauthorized immigrants commit violent crimes at a lower rate than the native population.
- Trump’s claim that immigration is a strain on the economy that would make Americans poorer is contrary to what economists have shown; immigration seems to raise wages for native-born workers while lowering pay for other immigrants.
- While Trump’s administration keeps talking about the increase in border crossings between 2017 and 2018, in a historical context, border crossings have actually substantially decreased since the early 2000s.
Lately, Trump has been trying to make a humanitarian appeal, citing the record numbers of children coming to the border and the risks associated. But as Vox’s Dara Lind has written, a border wall isn’t a solution to that problem. As Lind writes:
The point of walls is to prevent people from crossing into the US undetected. That’s not what most of the families and children who are crossing are doing. They’re turning themselves in to the nearest border agent they see on the US side.
To drive this point home, not a single one of the nine Congress members who represent districts on the US-Mexico border think there should be a wall, as CBS reported.
But all these realities are irrelevant to the president. Trump drummed up an immigration crisis to get elected in 2016, and again ahead of the 2018 midterms, he stoked fear about a migrant caravan that conservative pundit and Town Hall editor Guy Benson told me was “far less urgent and far less frightening that it is being portrayed as.” His 2020 presidential campaign fundraised off his Oval Office remarks about the crisis.
And public opinion shows Trump’s base responds to it.
Republican lawmakers haven’t acted like this is a crisis
There’s an old adage in the Capitol building that Congress needs a deadline or a crisis to get working. It’s why spending fights usually come down to the wire, and why gun control only sees a real debate after a particularly high-profile mass shooting.
Trump has been warning about this so-called “border crisis” since he took office, but Republicans, who until this January had full control of Congress and mostly say they fully support Trump’s wall, didn’t make it a priority. Every effort to pass immigration policy reflecting Trump’s agenda has failed. And when it comes to the wall, Republicans have just blamed Democrats for blocking their efforts.
But Republicans even had a bill to fund the wall with only 50 votes in the Senate — bypassing Democrats altogether. It was called the 50 Votes for a Wall Act, sponsored by Alabama Republican Rep. Bradley Byrne and 15 other House Republicans that would have created a trust fund that could be filled “out of any money in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated, such sums as the Secretary of Homeland Security may request of the Secretary of Treasury on or after October 1, 2018.”
In the same way Republicans passed tax reform, and tried to repeal Obamacare without Democrats, they could have pushed through funding for Trump’s border wall.
That didn’t happen. The president’s own party isn’t acting like this is a true crisis. Take it from Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), who represents the biggest border district and doesn’t see a need for a wall.
“I was just on the border. If something is a crisis, why are you not paying the people that are taking care of the crisis?” he told CNN’s Elizabeth Landers of Trump’s insistence on keeping the government shut down until he gets a border wall, even at the expense of Border Patrol’s paychecks.
Trump’s base might be responding to this border “crisis” — but Republican lawmakers haven’t been acting with urgency.