(Carlos Barria/AP)
Opinion writer

President Trump’s case to the nation for his border wall cast it as not just a security imperative, but a humanitarian one as well — the latest in what pundits have decided represents a tiny shift in his tone from crime and terrorism toward a more gentle focus on the need to relieve the plight of families and children at the border.

But precisely because of this, the speech that Trump delivered on Tuesday night gives Democrats an opening to unmask the hollowness of Trump’s new feint in a humanitarian direction and, with it, the true callousness and depravity of his posture on this whole crisis.

More importantly, it also gives Democrats an opening to hint at a way out of this impasse that could prove to be genuinely constructive, if Trump opts to take it.

In the speech, Trump recited the usual litany of lies. He falsely asserted there’s a “security crisis” at the border (which is not true by any available metric). He absurdly exaggerated the numbers of illegal immigrants encountered at the border and arrests of those with criminal records, dishonestly conflated migrant families with child smugglers, and falsely claimed a wall would stop illegal drugs.

But Trump also doubled down on the call for humanitarian solutions. “We have requested more agents, immigration judges and bed space to process the sharp rise in unlawful migration fueled by our very strong economy,” he said. “Our plan also contains an urgent request for humanitarian assistance and medical support.”

Yet here’s the thing: Pretty much everyone agrees on the need for increased investments in those things. And this is what gives Democrats an opening.

A way forward?

The basic state of affairs is this. In part because of the enormous border buildup and international factors, the type of illegal immigration that more security would address (adult border-crossers) is at historic lows, while the type of immigration that more border security would not address (families, children, asylum seekers) is soaring.

Trump keeps hyping the former to make the case for his wall. But, because the wall is pitched toward a fake crisis (and would be of questionable efficacy) and because Trump has poisoned the debate with xenophobic lies about immigrants, the wall has become a hill to die on for his supporters and a must-slay for opponents (justifiably, in my view). Trump has decided his whole political identity and survival are bound up with the wall. Result: We can’t have the debate over the humanitarian crisis we need to have.

Democrats need to break through this destructive feedback loop, by signaling strongly that they support funding to address many of the humanitarian challenges that Trump himself is now pointing to — with conditions attached.

The White House’s own spending request points to what this might look like. In addition to the $5 billion for wall money, it asks for $800 million for beefing up the response to the humanitarian crisis, including medical support, transportation and better accommodations for families, and $500 million for the immigration court system, to unclog the backlog processing migrants. This is what Trump referred to in his speech.

Democrats already support this kind of spending, because it comports with their analysis of the migrant problem as one of resource constraints and root causes. They have supported legislation that would spend more on those things, on increased counseling (social and legal) for migrants and on aid to Northern Triangle countries to discourage migrating.

Democrats should make it clear that Trump can have what he says he wants if he agrees to reopen the government, and if this debate is disentangled from the one over the wall.

“Democrats should strongly signal that they support funding improved conditions in Border Patrol facilities to prevent more kids from senselessly dying in custody,” Tom Jawetz, an immigration analyst at the Center for American Progress, tells me, “once Trump releases the hostages and reopens the government.”

Trump and Stephen Miller want fewer immigrants

The basic problem is that Trump and his Immigration Iago, Stephen Miller, are also committed to the overriding idea that fewer immigrants in the United States is better, so they view the migrant crisis through that frame. Trump casts immigration as a fundamentally malicious force, denigrating “s---hole countries,” inflating the criminal and terrorist element among migrants, and claiming Central American countries are taking advantage of us by “sending” migrants our way.

Thus, for him, the problem can only be solved mostly through increased toughness — it’s an enforcement and deterrence problem. That’s why Trump and Miller are trying to make asylum seeking harder, why they have dramatically slashed refugee flows, and why they broke up families. It’s also why they want to change the laws so it’s easier to keep families locked up together, preventing them from fleeing into the interior while awaiting hearings.

Those are nonstarters for Democrats, because they are cruel, overstate the threat of such flight and understate the root cause factors — that is, the sheer desperation of migrants — while dehumanizing them and weakening their human rights protections. But there is no reason Democrats can’t make it clear that they support pursuing the humanitarian solutions both sides agree upon right now, provided Trump stops acting like such a raging lunatic about everything.

Trump and Republicans will cast the humanitarian solutions as concessions to Democrats, and demand a wall in exchange. But that’s nonsense. First, members of Trump’s own government share an analysis of the problem that overlaps with Democratic thinking. Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, has called for boosting investments in improving facilities and protocol, bringing them in line with the shift in immigration from single adults to families and children.

Second, these are solutions Trump himself says he wants. Now that he has emphasized this in his speech, he cannot claim otherwise. What’s more, as Jawetz suggests to me, Democrats can champion improved technology at ports of entry to combat drug smuggling, as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has called for. (Ports of entry are where drugs enter, which is why a wall wouldn’t stop them.) It can also be packaged with the $1.3 billion in border security money (sans wall) that Democrats have already offered.

There is a political logic to this as well. Even immigration-skeptical conservatives such as David Frum agree with the resource analysis, so there’s cross-ideological consensus behind these humanitarian changes. This could also provide a political place for Senate Republicans who are increasingly panicked about the shutdown to go. They can tell the president: Here’s a solution that solves some of the crisis as he himself has identified it, including tough stuff on the border and drugs. Once the government is reopened, we can rejoin the debate over the wall, or the steel slat fence, or the fortified fencing that Democrats have offered, or what have you.

In this sense, Trump’s speech provides an opening for members of his own party to throw him a lifeline, albeit one first unspooled by Democrats.

Read more:

Alyssa Rosenberg: Trump tried to play a normal president on television. The result was very strange.

Stephen Stromberg: Trump is losing on his own terms

Erik Wemple: The networks interrupted their programming for the lamest rerun on television

Marc Thiessen: Trump won the night. Schumer and Pelosi lost.

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s nothingburger speech

Alexandra Petri: It was good to hear from the president