The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Has the GOP retreated into a world of make-believe? The shutdown debate will tell us.

During an unannounced visit to Iraq on Dec. 26, President Trump told reporters he was willing to continue a partial government shutdown. (Video: The Washington Post)

I know it’s a tiresome discussion. I know that most people would rather not be having it. I also know that the government shutdown is an appalling hardship for hundreds of thousands of government workers, from janitors to park rangers to NASA scientists, especially during the Christmas season. But, in its way, the gridlock that has settled in over Washington during this latest government shutdown is an important, meaningful milestone. How we resolve it — if we resolve it — will tell us whether we are still capable, as a nation, of making decisions using facts and evidence. Specifically, it will tell us whether Republicans in Congress, the White House and on Fox News live in the same reality as the rest of us, or whether they have retreated fully into a world of make-believe.

Take a step back and think about the “wall,” President Trump’s signature project at the center of the argument — and contemplate the fact that this wall will serve no purpose. Not only will it be ugly and bad for the environment; not only will it drain the budget; it also will fail to address the concerns of Americans who claim to oppose illegal immigration. This is the primary reason it should not be built.

In truth, if you say you care about illegal immigration, your focus shouldn’t even be on the border. The number of people crossing into the United States from Mexico illegally has actually been falling for many years, going back to the Obama administration and earlier. The numbers are down by 90 percent since 2000, thanks to better policing and a better Mexican economy (thank you, NAFTA). Meanwhile, a full two-thirds of those who have joined the illegal workforce in recent years did not illegally cross the southern border at all: They entered the country legally and then overstayed their visas. More than 700,000 people are thought to have used this method of illegal immigration last year. Within that group, the largest number are Canadians, followed closely by Mexicans, Venezuelans, Colombians and Brits. No wall will stop these illegal workers, whose total number far exceeds the asylum seekers from Central America.

The Post’s Nick Miroff breaks down the debate over the effectiveness of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

But even if your concern is much narrower, even if you do think you really care about the border, you should also be against the wall because it will quickly become a symbol of waste. The U.S.-Mexican border, which is nearly 2,000 miles long, runs through deserts and wilderness. Sooner or later, people will find ways over and under it, just as they now find ways over and under the existing fencing. A wall can only be effective if people, drones, cameras and spy planes are deployed to protect it, as so many other examples well demonstrate. The “wall” that separates Israel from the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza — often cited by the president as an effective example to follow — isn’t a wall at all; it is a “multi layered composite obstacle ” composed of multiple fences, barricades and ditches that are constantly patrolled and monitored. Unless you are prepared to pay for all of that as well, a U.S.-Mexican border wall is pointless.

The hard truth is that the wall has no function. Its only purpose is to serve as a talisman, as a fairy tale, as a mythical, “beautiful” piece of concrete that will be paid for by Mexico. The only difference between the wall and the now-forgotten, equally mythical “caravan” that we discussed during the election is that construction will cost real money. We, not Mexico, will pay for it in taxes and, therefore, in lost productivity. Or we will pay for it in interest on the national debt. Or we will pay for it by sacrificing spending on fighter jets or health care or roads.

It will make our nation weaker and poorer — $5 billion poorer. That’s why this isn’t a debate about border policy. It’s a debate that tells us which of our politicians cares about the real world inhabited by real Americans and which prefer to live in a fantasy world created by the president’s imagination. For the future of the country, it’s important that reality wins.

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Read more:

Karen Tumulty: No, President Trump. Reagan didn’t try to build a wall.

Letters to the Editor: ‘Dreamers’ and Trump’s dream of a wall

Anne Applebaum: The lure of chaos is leading Britain straight into the abyss

Robert J. Samuelson: Building the wall would be so worth it

Jennifer Rubin: Finally, a good argument for the wall