Fox News’s Chris Wallace sits in an enviable position as a journalist: He works for the only major network on which President Trump appears with any regularity but is also willing to challenge Trump and his administration in ways that other hosts on the network aren’t, which is what he did on Sunday morning with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
Sanders appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” where Wallace pressed her on the ongoing government shutdown. Normally, the most newsworthy part of the conversation would have been Wallace’s successful prosecution of Sanders’s assertions about the threat posed by terrorists crossing the U.S. border with Mexico. But Sanders, perhaps because she’s out of practice in dealing with challenging reporters — given the recent infrequency of White House news briefings — made another comment that deserves some attention.
As the shutdown continues, Wallace pointed out to Sanders that there would be continuing and accelerating negative effects for those government workers who aren’t being paid. Does President Trump think this is worth the border wall fight? Wallace asked.
“The president certainly doesn’t want any of those things to happen,” Sanders replied, adding that Trump also didn’t want to have to call widows of police officers killed by immigrants who are in the country illegally, as he did last week.
“This shouldn’t happen in this country, particularly when we have things that we know can help prevent it,” Sanders said. “Every life — that’s what sets America apart from every other country; we value life. That is what makes us unique.”
This argument for American exceptionalism is obviously remarkable. It’s also selective; there have been any number of other lamentable deaths in the United States that the administration has not determined to warrant the sort of attention that Trump is granting to the wall.
As we’ve noted before, most of those who are entering the country illegally in recent years have done so by overstaying visas, not by crossing the border with Mexico. While there are examples of people entering the country illegally and committing crimes, immigrants, including immigrants in the country illegally, commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans. There’s also no evidence that terrorists enter the United States across the border with Mexico — as Wallace pointed out.
He played a clip of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen saying that more than 3,000 “special-interest aliens” had been stopped at the southern border in the past fiscal year.
“But special-interest aliens are just people who come from countries that have ever produced a terrorist. They’re not terrorists themselves,” Wallace said. “And the State Department says that there is, quote, their words, ‘no credible evidence of any terrorist coming across the border from Mexico.’”
That’s true: The State Department made precisely that determination when it was helmed by Trump then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
"We know that roughly, nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally,” Sanders replied, “and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border."
“Wait, wait, wait,” Wallace said. “I know the statistic. . . . Do you know where those 4,000 people come … where they’re captured? Airports.”
"Not always,” Sanders said. When Wallace reiterated that most of those incidents were at airports, Sanders said, “It’s by air, it’s by land and it’s by sea. It’s all of the above. But one thing that you’re forgetting is that the most vulnerable point of entry that we have into this country is our southern border, and we have to protect it."
Sanders is more wrong than it seems. The figure isn’t 4,000, it’s 3,755, and it does not refer to terrorists caught at airports, but to “known or suspected terrorists prevented from traveling to or entering the U.S.,” as per a document released by the Department of Homeland Security on Friday.
In other words, if someone on the expansive terrorist watch list — someone who may have no association with terrorism — tried to get on a flight in London bound for the United States and was prevented from doing so, that counts in the 3,755 figure. Does that prove that we need a wall on the border with Mexico?
Update: On Monday, NBC News reported a more concrete number. Six non-Americans on the terror watch list were stopped on the border with Mexico in the first six months of fiscal year 2018. By contrast, 41 non-Americans were stopped on the border with Canada.
As others in the administration have of late, Sanders expanded her delineation of the nefarious threats posed by a lack of border security.
“[T]he more and more that our border becomes vulnerable and the less and less that we spend time and money protecting it,” she added later, “the more that we’re going to have an influx, not just of terrorists but of human traffickers, drug inflow and people that are coming here to do American citizens harm.”
No one argues that the border — meaning the border with Mexico but also other ports of entry, such as airports — should not be secured against human trafficking, terrorists and drugs. But Trump and Sanders are conflating that goal with the need for the wall intentionally, despite no evidence of terrorists entering from Mexico, despite recognition that most drugs that enter from Mexico are smuggled through established border checkpoints and despite the administration’s consistent hyping of questionable numbers meant to suggest children are regularly smuggled into the United States for criminal purposes.
Wallace’s questions challenged that misleading rhetoric quite effectively. He didn’t ask one important follow-up question, though: Which countries don’t care about life?