Those who are accustomed to “old school” Washington politics — where a photo op with the president and top Democrats is just a photo op and not a tribal council meeting on “Survivor” — might have been appalled by the 17-minute made-for-YouTube Oval Office food fight Tuesday between President Donald Trump and House and Senate minority leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. But surely even the most genteel and refined of observers can’t be terribly surprised that “reality television” standards have displaced any semblance of diplomacy or discretion in the machinations of this White House. What you see is what you get — over and over until your eyes hurt.
Setting aside a critique of that awkward encounter (with one exception: How about that steely Nancy Patricia D'Alesandro Pelosi, daughter and sister of Baltimore mayors, for not taking mansplaining of her political strength from the nation’s 45th president? Whoa.), there were really only two important questions raised. First, should portions of the federal government be temporarily shut down unless Congress provides $5 billion to build a border wall? The result there is simple: Democrats say no (as do most Americans, according to a recent poll, including a lot of Republicans). Mr. Trump says yes — and the latter is “proud” to take full responsibility for that shutdown. “I don’t mind owning that issue,” the president said later on Tuesday. “We’re closing it down for border security, and I think I win that every single time.”
But that raises the second, and most essential question of all: Does the U.S. actually need a multi-billion-dollar border wall? And the answer to that one is a resounding no. And the evidence here is as plain as two years of rejection of border wall funding by members of Mr. Trump’s own political party. It is a colossal waste of money.
Have doubts? Let us count the ways.
One: There is no crisis at the border. Yes, yes, we know that runs against everything Mr. Trump has been shouting about rapists, drug dealers and terrorists for the last two years, but even with the recent uptick in border detentions, illegal crossings have generally been in a downward trend since 2000 with the lowest number of apprehensions at the Southwest border since the 1970s in fiscal 2017, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In the 1990s, there were as many as 1.6 million border apprehensions a year. In 2017, it was 303,916, or less than one-fifth. And remember, studies show undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in this country.
Two: A wall isn’t the most effective way to secure the border anyway. Yes, there are some areas where fencing is helpful, but there are others where cameras, patrols, drones and other forms of technology are better. Many areas without fencing today are privately owned, and so there are legal issues to be resolved. Not the least of which is how to manage water that flows between the U.S. and Mexico that might be diverted by a solid barrier. And then there’s the matter of tunnels and ladders that can overcome walls. And walls can actually prevent border patrols from doing their work — they don’t have windows, so agents can’t see what’s happening on the other side.
Three: Why waste the money? Since 2012, more than half the new undocumented immigrants came here on overextended visas, not by illegal border crossings. If that’s the population to target, why bother with an ineffective wall that could cost $25 billion or more? Some experts point out that the wall keeps people in the United States as well. Before border crossing crackdowns in the 1990s, the U.S. had a substantial outflow of undocumented people, but that’s far less true today.
So instead of pursuing a more realistic strategy on border security, President Trump is intent on securing a political victory, albeit a Pyrrhic one, and Americans be damned how he gets it. A partial government shutdown right before Christmas may mean little to him or his most ardent supporters whom he’s conned into believing that illegal immigration is a full-blown crisis; it’s just bad for those who work for those agencies that would be affected and stop getting a paycheck at the worst possible time of the year. And to what end? The Democrats’ position only strengthens when they take control of the House in January. The president can’t win — unless the point is simply to put on a show for the anti-immigrant crowd. That makes the whole thing an exercise in utter futility and, like Tuesday’s tete-a-tete, another embarrassment for all concerned.