The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the border wall divided the GOP

Since Pat Buchanan’s first presidential run, Republicans have been fighting about structures on the border.

In this Jan 15, 2019 image, a section of newly-replaced border wall separates Tijuana, Mexico from San Diego, seen from San Diego last month. (Gregory Bull/AP)

President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency, intended to allow him to build a wall on the southern border without Congress approving funds, has sparked intense debate within the Republican Party, just as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) warned it would weeks ago. Senate Republicans in particular have bristled at the idea, with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) calling it “a mistake on the president’s part” and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) responding to news of the declaration by saying, “I wish he wouldn’t have done it.”

The Republican divide over the national emergency should come as no surprise, even in an era when the party’s politicians seem uniquely united. When it comes to a border wall, Republicans have been feuding for more than a quarter-century.

Trump looks to raid Pentagon budget for wall money using emergency powers

Those divisions trace back to the political ambitions of one man: Pat Buchanan. In 1992, Buchanan captured almost a quarter of the votes cast in the Republican presidential primaries, seriously weakening President George H.W. Bush. The Bush team thought securing the support of Buchanan’s followers was essential to winning the general election. That compelled it to placate the right-wing populist by giving Buchanan a prominent convention speaking slot, despite his promise that he wouldn’t “swear fealty to King George.”

The resulting speech, full of attacks on feminism and gay rights and “abortion on demand,” has shaped our understanding of the cultural fissure lines of that era. But Buchanan shaped the party’s platform that year as well, and in doing so, triggered a fierce debate when he insisted on the inclusion of the line: “We will increase the size of the Border Patrol in order to meet the increasing need to stop illegal immigration and we will equip the Border Patrol with the tools, technologies, and structures necessary to secure the border.”

One word in that line — “structures” — precipitated a brawl within the GOP over the merits of a border wall that has only grown more heated over the years.

That Republicans were even discussing a border wall in 1992 marked a sharp break with the past. The 1980 platform said that Republicans “have opened our arms and hearts to strangers from abroad” and that “we favor an immigration and refugee policy which is consistent with this tradition.” On the campaign trail, Ronald Reagan had declared that he wanted to “document the undocumented workers” and give them visas “for whatever length of time they want to stay.” He told Mexican President José López Portillo that they “could make the border something other than a locale for a nine-foot fence.” (Trump wants a fence three times as high.)

In 1986, Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act that embraced these principles, aiming to bring the undocumented out of the shadows while also stopping the rise in undocumented immigration.

Yet even before Reagan signed the law, a backlash was brewing against the increasing diversity and the steady rise in undocumented immigrants that dated to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. This changing sentiment was evident in the 1984 and 1988 Republican platforms, which insisted "upon our country’s absolute right to control its borders.”

By the early 1990s, this sentiment had grown more intense. Hence the resonance of Buchanan’s message. Buchanan’s candidacy gained momentum because of, not despite, his statement that Latin American immigration was an “assault” on Western culture, which he sought to block by erecting new “structures.”

Bush may have won the nomination, but Buchanan won the contest over what values would animate the Republican Party. Buchanan supporters constituted roughly a fifth of the platform committee, and by the end of its work, the document had taken a hard-right turn.

The platform adopted Buchanan’s call for new structures, but no one knew what the term meant. Bush’s people insisted that it referred to the maintenance and improvement of existing fences, which had been constructed along the border sporadically throughout the 20th century. But Buchanan’s people, one newspaper reported, countered that it meant “building walls … to repel illegal border crossings.” Buchanan spokesman Greg Mueller bluntly bragged that “the GOP is going to build the Buchanan fence.”

Competing interpretations abounded. Gaddi Vasquez, a Mexican American delegate who chaired the subcommittee that wrote the immigration plank, said he told the members of his committee that “structures” referred to beefed-up highway checkpoints for use by Border Patrol. Interior Secretary Manuel Luján Jr. claimed that structures simply meant legal structures.

All sides agreed, however, that something needed to be done about immigration.

This debate spooked Republican Hispanics, who made up about 10 percent of the convention’s delegates. They had spent much of the 1970s and 1980s thinking that the GOP was becoming more inclusive. Now they feared that Buchanan wanted to place a “tortilla curtain” along the southern border, like the Iron Curtain that had until recently divided Europe. They agreed that border walls would be “offensive and discriminatory.”

Hispanics looked to Jeb Bush, the president’s son, and his Mexican-born wife, Columba, to calm them. Jeb didn’t address the border wall, saying only that his father had a good record on issues Hispanics cared about and that Hispanics would play a “critical role” in his father’s reelection.

Lou Gallegos, a Mexican American delegate, wasn’t satisfied. Gallegos dismissed the explanations given for the meaning of “structures” as excuses. He thought that, by allowing the language, the GOP was “pandering” to the rising anti-immigrant sentiments among the party’s conservative fringe. Gallegos said he was “as good a Republican as anybody,” but he took issue with the rising feeling that “you’ve got to fence people out.”

Many non-Hispanic Republicans were upset, as well. An oilman from Roswell, N.M., lamented that it just didn’t make sense for Bush to work toward creating the economic free-trade zone that became NAFTA, while simultaneously considering the construction of “some kind of wall.”

The plank even bothered conservative luminaries in Bush’s Cabinet. Jack Kemp, Bush’s secretary of housing and urban development and later a Republican vice presidential nominee, didn’t “buy this idea that we have to set border guards to shoot people coming across.” To Kemp, “people don’t come to America for welfare. They come for their family.” William Bennett, Bush’s drug czar, acknowledged that “the American people expect to be protected” from drugs, but “they don’t want the country to turn into a totalitarian state with borders that have 100-foot walls.”

Republican anxiety and opposition prompted delegates to pass a separate resolution clarifying that whatever “structures” meant, it didn’t mean walls.

The language forced into the 1992 platform by the Buchanan brigades soon became more mainstream. Democratic President Bill Clinton supported Operation Gatekeeper, a 1994 measure that included fence construction. After 9/11, xenophobia and intolerance were widespread, especially against Muslims, helping drive passage of the Secure Fence Act, which authorized the construction of (an almost completed) 700 miles of border fencing. In a 2008 campaign ad, John McCain yelled, “Build the dang fence!”

Both McCain and President George W. Bush supported comprehensive immigration reform, but they recognized that to survive politically, a Republican needed to favor border security.

The specific call for new structures dropped out of Republican platforms from 1996 to 2008, except for a brief return in 2004. But by 2012, the platform demanded that the “double-layered fencing” called for in the Secure Fence Act “must finally be built.” In 2016, Trump’s platform insisted on “building a wall along our southern border.” The sometimes-yes, sometimes-no support for border walls represented the ongoing skirmishes in the Republican Party’s border wars.

Strictly speaking, a Republican war over a border wall is nothing new. The concept is divisive because some Republicans fear alienating Hispanic voters who they believe will be critical to the future success, or even survival, of the party. An overwhelming majority of Hispanics have opposed Trump’s border wall. Many Republicans also worry that walls are an expensive and ineffective solution to the nation’s immigration and drug problems. The emergency declaration exacerbates these debates because many Republicans see it as an abuse of power and a misdirection of resources.

The truth is that, while this debate has exacerbated the battle over a wall, the larger fight won’t end until the party decides exactly who it represents: border moderates, including most Hispanics, who’ve long opposed walls, or hard-liners who, bringing Buchanan’s vision to fruition, have taken over the party.