President Trump took the airwaves to make the case for his border wall in a speech from the Oval Office last night. In the speech, which lasted nine minutes and was followed by a rebuttal from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Trump framed the problem at the border as a “humanitarian crisis” and called it “immoral” to take no action.
Trump’s sympathetic words last night for illegal immigrants stand in stark contrast to his claims during the campaign that Mexico was “not sending their best” and that illegal immigrants were “people that have lots of problems,” bringing crime and drugs to the US, as well as his administration’s zero tolerance policy for illegal border crossers that resulted in breaking up illegal alien families. In contrast, last night Trump said that illegal immigrant children were “human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs” and cited a statistic that “one in three women are sexually assaulted on the dangerous trek up through Mexico.”
Saying that our immigration system was “broken,” Trump called on Congress to fix the problem. While both parties and most Americans agree that the immigration system needs an overhaul and that border security is important, the question is how to fix it.
Trump began by detailing a number of non-wall proposals that include many things that Democrats seem to agree with. These include “cutting-edge technology for detecting drugs, weapons, illegal contraband and many other things,” more Border Patrol agents, more bed space for detained illegals, and “humanitarian assistance and medical support.” The president also asked Congress to “close border security loopholes so that illegal immigrant children can be safely and humanely returned back home.”
What the president did not do was make a strong case that the wall was necessary for border security. The president’s question of why “wealthy politicians build walls, fences and gates around their homes” was more suitable to a meme than a policy speech. Trump claimed that Border Patrol agents said they needed a wall, but an internal study by US Customs and Border Protection found that agents gave priority to requests for more and better technology, training, and personnel.
A number of critics of the wall, including myself, have not called it immoral, but rather have said that it would be expensive and ineffective. The president pointedly ignored the factual problems with the wall plan that have been cited by such organizations as the Cato Institute and the Rand Corporation.
Instead of refuting these legitimate concerns and criticisms, the president used a straw man argument to attack anyone who doesn’t support the wall by framing the debate as a “choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice.” The president’s strong, emotional appeal will play well with the base, but it is unlikely to win over people who oppose the wall. Instead, it will harden the divisions and make a wall even more unlikely.
Rather than focusing on the wall that would physically divide the US and Mexico and that metaphorically divides US public opinion, a better strategy would be to get as much money for border security as possible and reopen the government. Put the money toward things that both sides want such as more agents, newer technology to assist them, and upgrades to the existing 600 miles of border fencing.
The fact is that many things that both parties want are in the compromise bills that are being proposed in the House. It is the insistence on $5 billion for the wall, a figure that would not come close to completing the project, that is keeping the government shut down and preventing a bipartisan compromise that would fund popular border security projects. President Trump should accept that a wall isn’t going to happen and get what border security money that he can. If he can upgrade and repair existing physical barriers on the border, he can even claim a victory in building the wall.