In 2015, the year President Trump launched his White House bid with a promise to build a wall on the Mexico border, illegal migration to the United States plunged 31 percent, falling near its lowest level in 50 years.
Security experts saw a success, but Trump looked at the border and saw something ominous: “rapists,” “criminals” and other predators lurking on the other side.
In 2017, Trump’s first year in office, he continued to insist on the urgent need for a border wall, even as illegal crossings dropped further.
With parts of the federal government shut down over what has morphed into the defining symbol of Trump’s presidency, administration officials are clamoring louder than ever. Only this time, they face a bona fide emergency on the border, and they’re struggling to make the case there’s truly a problem.
Record numbers of migrant families are streaming into the United States, overwhelming border agents and leaving holding cells dangerously overcrowded with children, many of whom are falling sick. Two Guatemalan children taken into U.S. custody died in December.
In a letter to lawmakers Friday, the White House and the Department of Homeland Security made a fresh appeal to amend immigration laws they denounce as “legal loopholes” and blame for creating a “border security and humanitarian crisis.” But the chance of reaching consensus for such technical fixes to U.S. immigration statutes is growing more remote, buried by the pitched battle over a structure new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calls “immoral.”
With both sides entrenched, there has been little bipartisan urgency to examine the relatively narrow set of legal and administrative changes that could potentially make a difference in slowing illegal migration or improving conditions for families who arrive at the border.
“There are places that need better fences or better walls; no one denies that,” said Anthony Earl Wayne, a U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to Mexico from 2011 to 2015. “But I don’t know how you get to that, while explaining to the public that we need to increase border security while meeting the human needs that are there.”
Instead, the policy debate has been overshadowed by an engineering project imbued with partisan emotion, with Trump fighting for billions of dollars in taxpayer funding and threatening to invoke emergency powers to build a wall without congressional approval. After failing to reach a deal with Democratic leaders, Trump seesawed Friday between characterizing the current border crisis as a “dangerous horrible disaster” and warning that the shutdown could stretch for “months or years.”