House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in the White House on Dec. 11, 2018.
Today is the 32nd day of Trump’s government shutdown
In this article:
- Conflicting definitions of “border security”
- Pelosi’s reasons for opposing the wall
- Appeasing Trump and the potential for corruption
- What’s at stake in the wall debate
Jan. 22, 2019 by David Silverberg
Why do congressional Democrats, led by House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), keep holding firm against a border wall despite President Donald Trump’s offers on Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the pain and damage caused by his shutdown of the federal government?
The longer the shutdown goes on, the more it will affect Southwest Florida. Already, government services are eroding and federal workers are suffering.
No part of the wall, as conceived to date, will apply directly to Southwest Florida. The only local “port of entry”—an authorized place where people and goods come into the country—is Southwest Florida International Airport. A wall will do nothing to stop unauthorized travelers or contraband from entering through there—notwithstanding the demand by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) that a wall be built.
Still, it’s worthwhile to fully understand the issue and understanding must began with conflicting definitions of “border security.”
As traditionally defined, “border security” means securing a nation from all external threats entering its territory while facilitating legitimate trade, travel, commerce and migration.
Under this definition, agencies responsible for border security must secure all forms of entry whether by land, air or sea. Most of this interaction takes place at ports of entry—airports, seaports and land entry points.
Done right, traditional border security is a complex and nuanced form of national protection, requiring extensive intelligence collection, cooperation with neighboring countries, adherence to international agreements and active involvement by local, regional and national law enforcement. Border security agencies must maintain efficient entry for legal goods, services, trade and people who enrich the country and enhance its economy while weeding out threats and dangers.
Ever since the end of World War II, there has been a global movement to reduce national barriers to trade and travel and smooth the flow of goods and people. This received a big boost with the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union in 1991 and the founding of the European Union in 1992. Following this and the establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1995, for the first time the entire world was playing by the same set of border rules with only a few, isolated exceptions.
Trump’s border wall
Donald Trump keeps invoking “border security” as his rationale for keeping the government shut down but it is clear from his many statements that he defines border security in only one way: a physical barrier or wall running across the entire length of the US southwestern border.
There is no subtlety or subtext in his invocations of border security: It must be a wall of some kind. Having been a developer and builder, his thinking is very simplistic and—literally—concrete. While his descriptions of this wall have varied a great deal from time to time, he can only conceive of border security in terms of brick and mortar.
What is more, his definition of border security is aimed at only two threats—unauthorized migrants coming from Mexico or Central America and illegal drugs.
Analysis: Why are the Democrats holding firm?
Perhaps Pelosi’s most eloquent and complete explanation of her rejection of Trump’s demands came on Jan. 4, shortly after she was sworn in as Speaker.
“The fact is, a wall is an immorality. It’s not who we are as a nation,” she said in a press conference. “And this is not a wall between Mexico and the United States that the president is creating here. It’s a wall between reality and his constituents, his supporters. He does not want them to know what he’s doing to Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security in his budget proposal. He does not want them to know what he’s doing to clean air and clean water and the rest in his Department of Interior and EPA. He does not want them to know how he is hurting them so he keeps the subject on the wall, a master of diversion.”
She was equally emphatic in describing the wall’s shortcomings. “The president cannot hold public employees hostage because he wants to have a wall that is not effective in terms of its purpose, cost effective in terms of opportunity cost, in terms of federal dollars spent. The President has said Mexico is going to pay for this. Come on, let’s anchor ourselves into reality. Mexico is not going to pay for this wall.”
She rejected the idea that the impasse was merely political. “It has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with a wall, an immorality between countries. It’s an old way of thinking. It isn’t cost effective.”
Let’s look at each reason in turn:
While this was the first thing Pelosi mentioned, it’s perhaps the weakest argument because morality is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly, Trump’s proposed wall goes against all American precedent and the entire globalist movement of the last nearly 30 years. That movement was the result of the lessons learned from World War II and the dangers of hyper-nationalism. It was also the result of the relief at the end of the Cold War, which brought the world together for the first time. The Cold War in particular was symbolized by a stark and grotesque wall—the Berlin Wall. When it came down, the world united. Trump’s wall takes the world back to that dark and dangerous time. In that sense, it is indeed immoral.
“It’s a wall between reality and his constituents, his supporters.”
Indeed, Trump’s wall is a single, focused project that consumes all thoughts of other issues and problems, or as Pelosi put it, it walls his supporters off from the harm he’s otherwise doing to them.
Massive building projects have long been characteristic of despots. Those whom Trump most closely resembles—the Roman emperor Nero and Adolf Hitler—both had their grandiose building plans: Nero his Domus Aurea or Gold House, a mammoth palace that featured a 120-foot statue of Nero in the entrance, and Hitler his Germania, a complete reworking of Berlin into a monument of world domination that was never completed.
A single, simple project is useful for keeping simple minds distracted and as Pelosi pointed out, Trump is “a master of diversion.” His is a simple mind that appeals to similarly simple minds, of which, unfortunately, there are many.
As a result, he’s also a master at hammering home a few simple themes, as his presidential campaign showed. But what goes for his followers also goes for Trump himself. He’s not only attempting to build a wall between reality and his followers; he seems to be trying to wall out any threats, challenges or even insecurities to himself. And, of course, he’s walling out different races, different people and different cultures—in short, anything that isn’t Trump.
“It’s an old way of thinking. It isn’t cost effective.”
This is absolutely true. Until the impasse, members of Congress had gone through their normal budgeting exercise and appropriated $1.6 billion for border security as traditionally defined. That budget was ready for Trump’s signing. Stung by criticism from right-wing pundits, Trump rejected the budget and demanded $5 billion for his wall (later raised to $5.7 billion).
Border experts and members of the US Border Patrol itself had long argued that the varied terrain of the US southwestern border required a variety of barriers and obstacles to be secured. Post-2001 calls for a continuous wall (and there were some) were dismissed as too expensive and ineffective.
Between 2006 and 2011 the US Department of Homeland Security initiated a Strategic Border Initiative to tighten up US borders, particularly in the southwest. Part of that was the Strategic Border Initiative Network (SBInet), which attempted to create a “virtual wall” along the border using radars, sensors and electronic networking. But after five years of experimentation and a billion dollars spent, the program was canceled, never having achieved its aims.
The idea of a continuous, static barrier has also been criticized in the past as ineffective. In 2007 Janet Napolitano, then governor of Arizona and later to be Secretary of Homeland Security, told the National Press Club: “I’ve prosecuted the illegal immigrants and the smugglers; I have also vetoed eight bills from my state legislature that I deemed overly harsh and ineffective. I declared a state of emergency and was the first governor to openly advocate for the National Guard at the border; yet, I also have refused to agree that a wall by itself is an answer. As I often say, ‘You show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.’”
Napolitano didn’t just criticize wall ideas. She also had a prescription for a solution: “The first is the development of innovative, technology-driven border control between the ports of entry. Boots on the ground definitely help, but we can shore up our border gaps with ground-based sensors, radar, and unmanned aerial vehicles for wide-area intrusive-detection. Any combination of the above will work far better than any 10 or 20 or 50 miles of wall.”
Other considerations: Stopping appeasement
While Pelosi focused on moral and cost issues and denied that politics were involved, there is definitely a political dimension to the Democratic objection to the wall and it was best put by Sen. John Warner (D-Va.) in a Jan. 20 tweet: “We cannot reward hostage-taking. If the President can arbitrarily shut down the government now and get what he wants, he will do it time and again.”
Donald Trump has engendered such distrust and outrage and has shown so little moderation or maturity in his behavior that Democrats know that handing him anything he perceives as a “win” will only increase his appetite for new demands and power grabs. It is reminiscent of what Winston Churchill said after the appeasing Munich conference of 1938: Hitler, “instead of snatching the victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course.” Eighty years later, Democrats are determined not to serve Trump such victuals course by course—or in any other form.
Incompetence, waste and corruption
Ordinarily, government acquisitions and building projects are subject to exhaustive review before being initiated. They are then governed by myriad acquisition rules and regulations. Cost estimates are the result of a lengthy drafting process before even being submitted by a Cabinet department for review by the Office of Management and Budget. They are then submitted to Congress where they are examined, authorized and the money is appropriated by the House and Senate before going to the President for signature. Some projects have taken decades before being reaching the point where they are funded.
There is no indication that Trump’s initial $5 billion figure—subsequently raised to $5.7 billion—was in any way considered, reviewed or evaluated before he just demanded it. To put it in the vernacular, he seems to have pulled the number out of his butt. He could have used the money originally appropriated by Congress toward advancing a phase of the project—if there was an orderly, phased approach to the project at all.
In fact, the wall project has been a disorderly, chaotic and absurd charade from the beginning.
As USA Today reported as early as May, 2017: “‘From the beginning it’s not a serious process, it’s not going to get the wall built,’ Michael Hari said of the process. His Illinois-based company, Crisis Resolution Security Services, submitted a design inspired by the Great Wall of China. ‘Right from the get-go there were conflicts, there was not enough time given to it, to develop a reasonable process that would result in a wall getting built,’ he said.”
If Democrats accede to Trump’s $5 billion demand, the future holds further demands for unreviewed, unexamined and unexplained appropriations.
These kinds of disorderly demands hold the promise of vastly more waste, fraud and abuse than the highly structured and restricted projects that the government has traditionally pursued—and even then there have always been instances of waste, fraud and abuse. Ironically enough, it was usually a Republican mantra that vast savings could be found in government budgets by cutting waste, fraud and abuse, thereby eliminating the need to raise taxes. Trump’s $5.7 billion wall demand holds the promise of a bounty of corruption for unqualified contractors, fly-by-night grifters and the whole horde of greedy hangers-on who thrive in the dark cracks of government contracting.
In her rebuttal to Trump’s national address on the wall on Jan. 8, Pelosi put forward some solid border security proposals: “The fact is: We all agree that we need to secure our borders, while honoring our values: we can build the infrastructure and roads at our ports of entry; we can install new technology to scan cars and trucks for drugs coming into our nation; we can hire the personnel we need to facilitate trade and immigration at the border; and we can fund more innovation to detect unauthorized crossings.”
All of this could be done at a fraction of the cost of Trump’s wall.
This is not a negotiation any more than the Munich agreement was a negotiation with Adolf Hitler: he made a demand and offered vague promises in return. The West acceded and, as Winston Churchill put it to Neville Chamberlin: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”
What is at stake here is not a war. But those firmly opposing Trump and his wall know that surrender on this wall means surrendering far more than $5.7 billion. It means far more than constructing an abomination across the southern US border. What is at stake is whether America will wall itself in and become a hermetic, static, racist state dominated by a despotic and bullying Donald Trump or remain an open, diverse, free and confident democracy.
Sadly, the casualty of this fight is the finest civil service in the world and everything it built over the last 240 years. It was work that made America prosperous, secure and free. It’s hard to imagine that the government and its employees can ever recover the stature and sense of service they are losing.
But by demanding a wall and demanding it so starkly and leaving no room for maneuver, Trump has drawn a line in the sand, so to speak.
Compromise requires the possibility of win-win outcomes. However, Trump insists on living in a win-lose universe. It’s the universe that he chose for himself and wants to impose on us all. Now, to maintain his dominance, he must win on the wall.
The wall must not be built. Unless he loses on this one, America will never be great “again.” And that’s why Democrats are fighting.
Liberty lives in light