The Trump administration’s strategy for building the infamous border wall has shifted from “shock and awe” to something more like “slow and steady.”
Its 2018 budget, released Tuesday, contains a request for Congress to give the administration $1.6 billion for wall construction. That might sound like a lot, but it’s way down from the $2.6 billion request in the original “skinny budget” released in March — which was supposed to come on top of $3 billion in immediate funding Trump asked Congress to pass this spring.
Congress didn’t do it. They didn’t even really consider it — in large part because Republicans need Democratic help to pass budget measures. Despite Trump bluffing, briefly, and claiming he would veto the government funding bill and force a shutdown at the end of April if it didn’t have money for the wall, he caved. And now he’s coming back to Congress chastened, with a much more modest proposal.
It’s almost as if the Trump administration is beginning to realize that building a wall will be really, really hard.
The new Trump plan: start the border wall in targeted segments
The $1.6 billion that Trump wants for the wall in fiscal year 2018, according to the Department of Homeland Security, would be spent on three segments — 74 miles — in addition to planning for the rest of the wall. Building those segments would result in the US-Mexico border having some sort of barrier along 36 percent of its 1,954 miles, as opposed to the 33 percent it has right now.
In case you’re wondering, the Trump administration is asking for $20.7 million per mile of wall — which comes out to a total cost of $40.4 billion extrapolated across the entire border, if the administration is able to avoid the cost overruns that tend to plague border projects.
Most of the wall the administration wants to build would be in the Rio Grande Valley — the easternmost sector of the border, which has been the most popular crossing point for the past several years, especially for Central American children and families. (Many of those children and families seek asylum in the US, which means that even with a wall, they’re legally allowed to show up at ports of entry and get screened into the US.)
But 14 miles of it would be located in the San Diego sector — the westernmost part of the border, where it would replace pretty substantial fencing.
Both of those are places where a wall might help “funnel” immigrants toward places they could be more easily caught — which is the strategic argument for the wall to begin with. They’re pretty targeted, limited investments. They are, in other words, the opposite of building a wall for the sake of a wall — or building a wall, as opposed to a better fence, to begin with.
We still don’t know how those wall segments will actually look. (DHS is currently in the process of selecting proposals to build wall “prototypes”: one made of concrete and one made of some other material.) But the proposal represents a serious ratcheting back from the Trump administration — from a shot-across-the-bow request for more than $5 billion over 17 months to a fairly incremental request for a fairly incremental effort.
Where Trump isn’t backing down: an immigration agent hiring surge
This isn’t the sign of a new, less hawkish Trump immigration agenda. If anything, he’s deprioritizing the border wall in favor of things that will do more to kick immigrants who are already here out of the US.
Trump’s budget asks for money to hire 500 new Border Patrol officers (who have jurisdiction within 100 miles of the actual border) and 1,000 new “deportation agents” in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (within the interior of the US). He didn’t reduce those requests from the skinny budget. And they’re on pace with his broader plan, laid out in an executive order signed in the first week of his presidency, to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents and 10,000 new ICE agents.
Since there are already so few illegal border crossings compared with recent history, and since most unauthorized immigrants in the US have lived here for years or decades, hiring more deportation agents will arguably have a bigger impact on immigration enforcement (and on immigrants’ lives and communities) than building the wall will.
That possibility has worried Democrats, who managed to keep money for immigration agent hiring out of the funding bill signed this spring.
Trump’s decision to slow his roll on the border wall might be an acknowledgment of the political difficulty: In addition to asking members of his own, generally spending-averse party to appropriate billions of dollars, he’d be asking Texas Republicans to side against their constituents whose land would have to be seized for the wall to be built.
But when it comes to hiring more immigration agents — to patrol the border and to deport immigrants who are already in the US — the battle is simply along partisan lines.
That’s going to make it trickier for Democrats, with minorities in both chambers, to fight off a funding increase. Especially if Republicans aren’t already put off by the now-reduced cost of the wall.