It is noticeable that Trump is talking more and more about the wall as a solution to this country’s drug and crime problem — in part, because his characterization of migrants as murderers and rapists is a racist trope that has worn thin with all but the most xenophobic of his supporters.
But the $5.7 billion barrier that Trump wants to build would be no deterrent to the vast majority of the illegal drugs coming into this country. Very little of it is carted in by people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in remote areas of the desert where the wall would go up. Illicit narcotics, by and large, come in shipments through existing points of entry.
Many of the most innovative ways that drugs are smuggled — via tunnels, in trucks and cars, mixed in with ordinary cargo such as cooking oil and bananas — have been vividly laid out during the ongoing trial in New York of Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo.
And there’s an appalling incongruity to Trump’s decision to hold a quarter of the government hostage to get his wall. More than half of all drug seizures are made at sea by the Coast Guard. Its 41,000 active-duty personnel and 8,000 civilian employees are the one branch of the military working without pay during this longest-ever shutdown.
In fiscal 2017, the Coast Guard set a record, seizing 223 metric tons of cocaine and detaining more than 600 smugglers. But its resources are strained; officials say the service that does the most to interdict drugs is able to pursue only 1 in 5 of the targets identified by its intelligence.
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) is the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has oversight responsibilities for the Coast Guard. As he noted last week on the House floor: “If the president really wants to talk about intercepting drugs, and he wants to talk about real border security, he should be talking about giving more resources to the United States Coast Guard, and not stiffing them on their paychecks, and not making them fly ancient helicopters and [use] 50-year-old cutters.”
I asked DeFazio’s staff for a shopping list of what the Coast Guard would find most effective in boosting its drug-interdiction capabilities.
For less than half of what Trump is asking for the wall, the Coast Guard could buy or build: six HC-130J Super Hercules surveillance planes ($570 million); three unmanned aircraft ($90 million); eight helicopters for air stations in California, Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico ($160 million); a helicopter squadron on the West Coast, similar to the one that already exists in Jacksonville, Fla. ($200 million); a boat station on the Rio Grande ($35 million); forward operating bases in South Texas ($25 million) and on both coasts in Central America ($200 million); better cybersecurity ($200 million); one Legend-Class cutter ($790 million), and six rapid-response cutters, which are the workhorses of its fleet ($450 million).
All of that adds up to $2.74 billion. That leaves plenty left over from the money that Trump wants to waste on a wall. Some of it could go to Immigration and Customs Enforcement — for, say, 1,000 new customs officers ($100 million), or 45 new intelligence analysts ($4.5 million).
What it would not do is feed the impulses of many in Trump’s base, who want a barrier — however ineffective — as much for its symbolic value as anything else. “Buy more helicopters” would never catch on as a chant at a political rally. However, it might actually help make the country safer.
But first things first. Reopen the government. We owe at least that much to those who are out there every day on the front lines of the fight against illegal drugs coming over our borders.