But Schumer and Democrats should just write Trump a blank check for border security, then focus their energy on preserving legal immigration, which Trump also wants to cut. Caving on the wall is better than risking the deportation of up to 1.8 million “dreamers.”
Besides, we more or less have a wall now. If Trump wants a new one, let that be his folly.
Candidate Trump promised over and over that if elected, he’d “build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” So, it may come as a surprise to many Americans that there already is a physical barrier along America’s southern border and that a good portion of it was built during Barack Obama’s first term in office.
The Secure Fence Act of 2006, passed by a Republican-controlled Congress (including a yes vote from then-Senator Obama) and signed by President George W. Bush, authorized the erection of hundreds of miles of border fencing. According to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report, over the next several years, the Department of Homeland Security spent billions to build barriers ranging from barbed wire to concrete obstacles to trenches, complete, in many places, with security cameras, overseen after 2008 by then-President Obama and a Democratically-controlled Congress. About 700 miles of border is fortified this way, protecting the gaps between the miles of border considered impassable because of mountains and rivers.
Republicans have long protested that this is insufficient. In 2011, writing for the National Review, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) charged that the Obama administration “has not done its job to finish the border fence that is a critical part of keeping Americans safe and stopping illegal immigration.” Obama batted away such critiques, saying the border fence was “basically complete,” but Republicans would never be satisfied. They “want a higher fence,” he said. “Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the moat.”
PolitiFact challenged Obama’s assertion that border security was a fait accompli, and they had a point, explaining, “Not to go all Clinton on you, but it largely depends on how you define ‘fence.’ ” Indeed, when most people think of a wall, they think of a wall, not fences and trenches. But Obama had a point, too. Congress passed a law, money was spent, barriers went up and here we all are. It’s not like Trump traveled the country for two years saying let’s beef up existing security measures. He said he’d build “a big, fat beautiful wall” and Mexico would pay.
Now that Americans are being asked to foot the bill, we should be unhappy about spending $25 billion on an unpopular proposal, just to back up a campaign talking point: According to a CBS News poll out this month, 61 percent of Americans — including 88 percent of Democrats — are against building a wall.
But Democrats have to grapple with other GOP demands, which include ending the diversity visa lottery and a reduction in visas for family reunification. So when you consider that some form of a “wall” already exists, the easiest bargaining chip to give away is border wall funding. They should throw Trump that bone, get the best deal they can on the lottery, remind voters that so-called chain migration is what we used to call the American Dream, and then loudly, repeatedly, point out that they’re the party offering compromise — willing to fund a pet project they strongly oppose — to break the logjam on immigration and keep the government running.
Pre-shutdown, Politico’s Rich Lowry figured that GOP immigration hard-liners would count on Democrats digging in, on principle, against a wall. But when even Trump acknowledges that building a wall really just means enhancing what already exists at the border — he tweeted last fall that “The WALL, which is already under construction in the form of new renovation of old and existing fences and walls, will continue to be built” — Democrats have to be pragmatic.
No matter how sympathetic the dreamers’ case may be — nearly a year ago, Trump described them as “incredible kids” — hard-liners say letting them stay is a form of “amnesty.” Given that opposition, it’s clear Democrats will have to give something up to protect them. As Republicans try to turn this into a fight over legal immigration, Democrats should offer up the wall because it’s a mostly symbolic concession.
If this fight were all about symbols and values, they’d be right to resist even the concept of a wall. The debate echoes darker moments of America’s past and crystallizes the xenophobia at the heart of Trump’s political rise. But if dreamers’ fate is being ransomed to fund the president’s border wall fantasy, the strategic move is to pay it.