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Democrats aren’t ruling out physical barriers in a border security deal

It’s not in their current proposal, but they haven’t dismissed the option.

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Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) speaks at a 2017 event in Washington, DC.
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Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The most important thing hashed out in the latest round of negotiations over border security is what exactly a “wall” is. At negotiators’ first meeting on border security this Wednesday, both Republicans and Democrats rarely mentioned the word “wall,” focusing instead on the efficacy of a so-called “physical barrier.”

These talks, which are taking place as another government shutdown deadline looms on February 15, also included a new border security proposal from House Democrats. That proposal doesn’t currently have any money for physical barriers, but Democrats didn’t rule out the possibility.

As Vox’s Tara Golshan has previously written, Democrats have never been totally opposed to “physical barriers” along the southern border, and have even backed fencing in the past. Pushback against a wall, however, has centered on rejecting one of Trump’s racist campaign promises.

“At this point, I’m certainly not going to give an answer to that question,” said House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey (D-NY), when asked about her openness to backing a potential barrier.

The Wednesday meeting, which marked the kickoff of a whirlwind set of spending negotiations among a bipartisan group of 17 lawmakers from both the House and the Senate is intended to be the first of many aimed at hammering out appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security. While President Donald Trump may have agreed to reopen the government earlier this month, he did so on the condition that lawmakers figure out a spending deal he can get on board with.

If they don’t figure out a solution in time, Trump could shut down the government again, or potentially declare a national emergency. He highlighted a “wall or physical barrier” as his main priority for these talks, in a tweet ahead of the Wednesday meeting.

Republicans, too, emphasized the importance of a “physical barrier” as part of discussions. “The components of border security are people, technology and a barrier,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND). “We’ve got to have all three in there.”

In the previous spending package put together by the Senate Appropriations Committee, Democrats and Republicans had agreed on $1.6 billion in funding for pedestrian fencing, which is technically a physical barrier along the border. Trump, meanwhile, has asked for $5.7 billion for a wall in his most recent request.

“This is opening day,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby, of the meeting. Lawmakers and staffers from both sides will now begin to hash out differences in earnest, he added. “Thus far, all sides seem to agree that border security is important, but we cannot end there.”

Democrats are not ruling out a barrier — but they are putting the focus on tech and personnel

While Democrats did not dismiss the possibility of including a physical barrier in a final deal, they repeatedly emphasized that they’d prefer a “smart” and “comprehensive” package that doled out more money for technology and personnel.

“Border security, however, is more than physical barriers,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA). “And Homeland Security is more than border security.”

Multiple Democrats emphasized that drones, sensors and other technology should play a central role in any border security investments. “We cannot focus on archaic solutions to address this very modern problem,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA), who noted that equipment to scan vehicles at ports of entry would be key for tracking drug shipments.

Several lawmakers also warned that giving more money for any physical barriers would mean less money for other DHS resources provided by FEMA and the US Coast Guard. “Every dollar spent on ineffective proposals means one less dollar invested in measures that keep us safe,” Lowey said.

Roybal-Allard laid out House Democrats’ proposal during the conference meeting on Wednesday, though she said there wasn’t a final spending estimate for them yet. These are some of the provisions it includes, according to a document lawmakers shared:

  • 1000 new Customs officers
  • Imaging technology to scan vehicles at Ports of Entry for contraband items including drugs
  • Equipment at mail-processing facilities to intercept shipments of opioids
  • Expansion of US Customs and Border Protection’s air and marine operations on land and in US waters along the border
  • Hiring new Homeland Security investigations agents focused on drug smuggling, gang crimes, and financial crimes
  • Investment in TSA’s ability to detect threats at security checkpoints
  • Funds to address the humanitarian crisis at the border and needs of migrants in CBP custody

Democrats are keeping their options open on “physical barriers.”

Earlier this week, a key Democratic leader signaled that investment in fencing was a possibility. “We are willing to support fencing where it makes sense,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries said during a press briefing.

“What we’re doing is we’re open to a discussion about what would be most cost-effective and weigh the benefit of whatever is being proposed,” Roybal-Allard said. “We’re open to a discussion on all aspects of border security.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are firmly pushing a physical barrier

Republicans at the meeting agreed that different kinds of investments were needed in a border security plan, but argued that a physical barrier was chief among them.

“Technology is important, but I think some fences and some other things are important, too,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) said.

House Appropriations’ top Republican, Kay Granger (TX), echoed this sentiment, noting that physical barriers would be an integral piece of any larger border security plan. She laid out some of Republicans’ key tenets in her remarks:

  • Increased funding for technology, canines, and personnel to address the flow of drugs, weapons, and other contraband items
  • Hiring of more border agents, law enforcement, and staff
  • Resources to implement smart technology and barriers
  • Funds for the immigration court system and additional judges
  • Funding for humanitarian assistance, medical support, and temporary housing

The incorporation of fencing in any bipartisan agreement could possibly address Republican concerns, said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (WV), who said it has the potential to satisfy the president’s demands for a physical barrier. “I think [Trump has] talked about physical barriers and I think a fence is a physical barrier,” so she’s hopeful he’d be open to signing it.

Trump, as always, remains the key wild card.

“As long as it’s something the president would support, the [majority] leader will bring it to the floor,” Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-SD) told reporters on Tuesday.

There are still outstanding questions about the scope of the deal, though the limited timeframe suggests that it will be more narrow

Given the very short timeframe, lawmakers seem keen to remain focused on border security, while setting aside other immigration policy changes.

Republicans earlier this week had suggested that a final agreement could potentially be wide-ranging, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) even floating the possibility of tying a February spending deal with a debt-limit extension. Lawmaker statements on Wednesday, however, predominately homed in on border security.

“It’s just a matter of border security at this moment,” Lowey said.