Opinion writer

President Trump is once again raging about his wall. Apparently he heard something during his morning excursion into the right-wing media house of horrors that persuaded him he’s in danger of looking weak, as conference committee negotiations over a border funding bill begin:

In saying this, Trump is actually restricting the maneuvering room Republicans will have in these bipartisan conference talks, which are focused on finding a compromise on Department of Homeland Security funding that will avert another government shutdown in mid-February.

Trump is letting it be known that he will continue to define “border security” as a “wall” or “barrier” — that is, as a down payment on a large and monolithic superstructure that fulfills the fantasy he promised his supporters. That could make it harder for Republicans to accept a deal that spends billions on real border security, just not quite to Trump’s specifications, without enraging the base.

But this gives Democrats an opening to go into these talks with a reality-based agenda to address the real problems at the border. And the early signs are that they are going to do just this.

What Democrats will propose

I’ve got new details on the opening bid Democrats plan to make in these talks. According to a House Democratic aide, Democrats will put on the table the following proposals:

  • Democrats will propose hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding to address the humanitarian crisis at the border, with upgraded facilities that are better equipped to deal with just-arrived asylum-seeking families and children, including additional medical care and counseling. Democrats will also push for around half-billion in money for additional judges to unclog court backlogs.
  • Democrats will propose to increase the amount of border security money to a point higher than the $1.3 billion they originally offered but less than the $5.7 billion Trump wants. (I was unable to obtain the exact figure.) However, this would not be wall or barrier money. Instead, it would be for things such as increased personnel and more sensors along the border, and drug-scanning technology at ports of entry.
  • That border security investment would also include more money for Homeland Security personnel who would focus on investigating human trafficking, something both sides agree is a serious problem.
  • Democrats will also push to include funding in a related bill that provides more than a half-billion dollars for investments in economic aid and shoring up institutions in Central American countries, to address the terrible civil conditions prompting these migrations of asylum-seekers.

Let’s be as clear as possible: There is a set of solutions to the actual crisis that is unfolding in the real world — the humanitarian one — as opposed to the crisis Trump has hyped beyond recognition. This set of proposals is much more targeted toward that crisis than Trump’s wall is.

As Dara Lind put it in an exhaustive piece for Vox on the real border crisis, the United States is now seeing “large numbers of children and families, often in large groups, crossing the border without papers to turn themselves in to U.S. authorities." This is “genuinely unprecedented," with the result that the immigration system is unprepared and “cracking under the strain.”

By contrast, the numbers of illegal crossings — ones in which people try to evade authorities — are at historic lows. But this hyped crisis is the one Trump keeps harping about to make the case for the border wall.

Democrats can reframe the debate

The new Democratic offer in conference negotiations is an attempt to reframe this whole debate, and shift it to a reality-based discussion of what the real crisis genuinely calls for right now.

On the security side, Democrats will propose improved drug-scanning technology at ports of entry because ports of entry are where most illegal drugs enter. This is in contrast to Trump’s constant claim that only a wall will stop illegal drugs, which is fiction.

What’s more, the money for increased investments in personnel to investigate human trafficking would focus more resources on something that both sides agree is a real security problem. Trump keeps going on about taped and gagged migrant women, which is also fiction, but still, if he is serious about this being a problem, this investment should appeal to him.

I’m also told that Democrats will argue in conference that more personnel and technology are the right answer to the real security challenges of the moment. They will argue that technological improvements have rendered those more cost-effective in some cases than barriers are.

To be clear, some barriers could form part of a final compromise. Democrats might accept this, provided they are done in keeping with needs-based requests from DHS that are justified with facts and data, under careful congressional scrutiny.

They would also have to come with actual concessions to Democrats that take Trump’s cruel and draconian asylum-restricting proposals off the table -- money for courts is the better way to reduce backlogs -- and as part of a package that invests major amounts in the humanitarian crisis, which could help a lot of people and save migrant children’s lives.

Trump is trapped in a Fox News bubble

The only real question right now — despite absurdly strained efforts by Trump allies to paint Democrats as the intransigent ones — is whether Trump can accept such a compromise.

Fox News keeps hyping the migrants as posing a terrifying national security crisis, and once again, Trump is echoing that:

But a genuine compromise would give Trump much of what is actually needed to address the real crisis, as members of Trump’s own administration have defined it. Border protection officials want this humanitarian money and increased personnel to battle trafficking to address a problem that Trump has embellished with fiction but is still nonetheless real.

And while Trump has buffoonishly threatened to cut off aid to Central American countries, in keeping with his idea that they are “sending” migrants to rip us off, border officials want investments in aid to those countries, because they recognize that migrants have real-world motives rooted in home-country conditions.

So a compromise is possible. But will Trump give Republicans on the conference committee space to negotiate one?

As Matthew Gertz documents, “Fox & Friends” is now telling Trump that a final deal with “barriers” would give Trump a way to say he got his wall but also give Democrats a way to claim victory. The question is whether Trump can tolerate an outcome in which both sides get some of what they want — and Trump’s base gets angry about it — rather than giving him total victory.

Read more:

David Byler: Want to know which Democrats can actually beat Trump? We don’t have to guess.

Ro Khanna: Why I strongly oppose U.S. intervention in Venezuela

Judy Dempsey: Europe needs to show Britain the door

Megan McArdle: Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax is no way to run government — but a good way to run a campaign

Karen Tumulty: Put Washington in a time-out. Bring in people who know something about the border.

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