President Donald J. Trump met with congressional leaders at the White House Friday morning in an attempt to break the impasse over funding for federal agencies. The president has made a $5.6 billion line item for a border wall the make or break issue for a quarter of the federal government.
Thursday the president held his first White House news briefing to reinforce his demands. He introduced Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the labor union for Border Patrol agents. “I’m going to have them introduce themselves right now and also say a few words about the wall, about — you can call it a barrier,” the president said. “You can call it whatever you want. But essentially, we need protection in our country. We’re going to make it good. The people of our country want it. I have never had so much support, as I have in the last week, over my stance for border security, for border control and for, frankly, the wall or the barrier.”
Judd then picked up the script. “I’ve been a Border Patrol agent for 21 years. I can personally tell you, from the work that I have done on the southwest border, that physical barriers, that walls, actually work. You hear a lot of talk from the expert that — you hear a lot of talk that there are experts that say that walls don’t work. I promise you that if you interview Border Patrol agents, they will tell you that walls work.”
What’s interesting about that promise is that it contradicts the official position of the Border Patrol Council. Here is what that body says on its web page:
“The NBPC disagrees with wasting taxpayer money on building fences and walls along the border as a means of curtailing illegal entries into the United States. However, as long as we continue to operate under the current NBPS and ignore the problem that is causing illegal immigration, we realize fences and walls are essential,” the council says. “Walls and fences are only a speed bump. People who want to come to the United States to obtain employment will continue to go over, under, and around the walls and fences that are constructed. Walls and fences will undoubtedly result in an increase in fraudulent documents and smuggling through the Ports of Entry.”
Indeed, the Associated Press reported Thursday in a fact check, that immigration across the border is and has been dropping, but that visa overstays have remained consistent.
The numbers from AP: “There was a high of 1.6 million border apprehensions in 2000, and that dropped to about 310,000 in the 2017 budget year. A 2017 Homeland Security report found that the number of “known got aways”— an estimate Border Patrol agents developed — fell from 600,000 in 2006 to roughly 106,000 in 2016. In contrast, Homeland Security found that 700,000 foreigners who came by plane or ship overstayed their visa from October 2016 to September 2017.” And that number is smaller than actual because it does not include Canadians and Mexicans who drove across the border. The estimate is now that 42 percent of all unauthorized immigration results from a visa overstay.
In general, unauthorized immigration has been dropping. Pew Research Center reports: “There were 10.7 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. in 2016, representing 3.3 percent of the total U.S. population that year. The 2016 unauthorized immigrant total is a 13 percent decline from the peak of 12.2 million in 2007.”
So what is the purpose of a wall? One argument made by the president is that it will prevent drug trafficking. But Homeland Security data shows that cross border traffic in narcotics -- smuggling -- would not be impacted by the wall either. Most drugs come across the border hidden in commercial or private vehicles.
So the debate is not really about the wall. Last year an internal document from Homeland Security said the wall could cost at least $21.6 billion, not including maintenance. A Senate investigation said it would cost $70 billion and at least $150 million a year for operational costs. The president’s ask of $5 billion is hardly a real number.
But if you need updated information, good luck. The Border Patrol website (and its data collection) are on hold because of the government shutdown. Agents are not being paid and that, sooner or later, will make the task of border patrol even more problematic.
On top of that immigration courts are also out of funding and those courts were already behind. The average case in an immigration courts today will take almost two years before a decision, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Last month alone there were some 12,050 prosecutions that will have to go through the judicial process. Expect that number to go up. The White House said the backlog now exceeds 800,000 immigration cases.
The White House in its letter to Congress describes the border as a crisis.
“We are no longer in a status quo situation at the Southern Border but in a crisis situation,” the president wrote. “Status quo funding is not enough.”
The president wrote that a border wall is “absolutely critical” to national security. “Walls work. That’s why rich, powerful, and successful people build them around their homes. All Americans deserve the same protection. In Israel, it is 99 percent effective.”
But this argument bolsters the Democrats position. Why not fund the government while continuing to debate differences in policy about the border? The shutdown only makes it worse for the courts, the Border Patrol agents, and those who work throughout the government, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service.
Friday afternoon Trump called his meeting with congressional leaders "productive."
But Democrats said the president made a threat that he would keep the government shut down for months or even years. The president said the White House would continue meeting with congressional leaders over the weekend about border security issue, including a "fence" or a "wall."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said these issues cannot be resolved unless the government is opened again. Democrats did not see any movement other than an agreement to continue talking over the weekend. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, was even more blunt, saying the president said the shutdown could last months or even years.
However the president told a different story.
There are miles and miles of unprotected borders without those walls or fence, the president said. "They don't come in through the port where we have a lot of protection, they come through open areas," he said. "It's just open space."
The president said he wants "$5.6 billion very strongly" in the spending bill. Money that Congress will have to appropriate before the government shutdown comes to an end. He said Vice President Mike Pence would be the point person for the weekend negotiations.
Later Friday the Washington Post reported that Trump told reporters in the White House that he could declare a national emergency to build the wall. But even that idea begs the question: Where would the money come from?
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports