As the longest-ever partial government shutdown stretches on, President Trump is facing significant political headwinds across an array of new polling, some of which we'll mention below. I've argued all along that shutdown brinksmanship is a deeply flawed strategy that rarely works out well for the party that's perceived as precipitating the showdown -- a lesson that the Democrats had to re-learn just a few months ago. According to a Washington Post article, senior Republican leaders warned the president late last year that this was a fight that wouldn't end well, yet here we are.
But my argument that Democrats enjoy the political high ground in this impasse does not discount Trump's policy case in favor of additional barriers -- which many Democrats have gone on the record to support, both in the past, and even in recent days. National Public Radio, hardly a right-wing outfit, aired and published an illuminating report on this debate from the perspective of the US Border Patrol. The White House should share some of these quotes as widely as possible:
Senior Border Patrol officials are taking up President Trump's call for more miles of border barrier, pushing back against congressional Democrats who say additional fencing is unnecessary. During a ride-along with the Border Patrol on Wednesday in its San Diego sector, agents made it clear that the fence deters illegal crossers. "I started in the San Diego sector in 1992 and it didn't matter how many agents we lined up," said Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott. "We could not make a measurable impact on the flow [of undocumented immigrants] across the border. It wasn't until we installed barriers along the border that gave us the upper hand that we started to get control." Forty-six of the 60 miles of border in the San Diego sector are currently protected by some type of barrier. Scott says in the places where he has two levels of fencing he achieves 90 percent operational control.
...The San Diego sector is now seeking 5 miles of additional fencing across this mountainous ground to stop the illegal movement of humans and drugs. "Every night people come through this canyon," said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Michael Scappechio. "If we put in a border barrier, we can utilize the [agent] manpower elsewhere." He added that a steel fence is a smarter border defense than having agents in ATVs or on foot chasing people crossing illegally through remote and rocky ravines, which is dangerous for the pursuer and the pursued.
Barriers help with resource allocation and help deter pursuits that endanger agents and unlawful border crossers alike. The story also explains why the per-mile cost for the proposed barriers is so high: "The added expense comes from building access roads, installing sensors and acquiring private land — which accounts for most of the borderland in Texas." Officials at the border express puzzlement about the politicized nature of the discussion over new fencing, noting how a heretofore consensus issue suddenly became partisan (answer: "Trump"). But some of the agents also say forcing the issue via a partial shutdown is the wrong path:
Asked what he would tell opponents to Trump's wall, Scott said sector chiefs like him have actually been asking for more tactical barriers for years, "and all of a sudden it got unbelievably political overnight." A veteran Border Patrol agent in the San Diego sector, who asked not to be named, said he and other agents are in favor of more miles of robust fencing. "Natural barriers don't work anymore. [Illegal crossers] come right through mountains and deserts now." He added, "But holding agents and federal employees hostage over this fence is crazy." ... Some Border Patrol agents say privately that the administration is putting too much emphasis on the wall and it needs to keep a more holistic vision of border security that includes technology such as remote mounted cameras, sensors, lights and tethered spy blimps, as well as manpower.
I agree that Trump should broaden his rhetorical focus to include the other aspects of border security that Democrats also support, which he can do without abandoning his stance on barriers. The opposition leadership should be pressured to agree to allocate additional funds for this broad-based approach, including on walls and fencing -- either as part of a deal that ends the current stalemate, or as a guaranteed condition to reopening the government in advance of hammering out an agreement. NPR's piece also addresses the so-called 'caravan,' including an unapologetic defense from US Border Patrol over using tear gas to disperse crowds of rock-throwing migrants ("agents have a right to protect themselves and will continue to do so"). This detail caught my attention:
Across the border in Tijuana, the number of Central American migrants who arrived in a caravan in November has dropped from 8,000 to 2,000. Those remaining are waiting for their turn to ask U.S. officials for asylum or contemplating brincando el muro — jumping the fence — to surrender to agents. Scott said his agents have arrested more than 2,500 migrants from the group who crossed the border illegally, pushing aside or climbing over old sections of sheet metal fencing.
For all the talk about the caravan being a manufactured, fear-mongering issue, US authorities ended up detaining more than 2,500 members of the Caravan who illegally crossed our border as a result of that melee. And the last sentence of the excerpt above reminds us that part of enhancing border security must involve updating, repairing and replacing existing barriers, in addition to installing new ones. Meanwhile, talking points like this strike me as bizarre non-sequiturs:
Fact check: Nearly half of all undocumented immigrants come to the United States legally but then overstay their visas. A border wall would do nothing to curb visa overstays.— Sen Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein) January 11, 2019
Yes, visa overstays and internal enforcement are very large components of this larger policy challenge, but arguing that needed, discrete steps on one front cannot or should not be taken because they wouldn't resolve problems on other fronts is nonsensical. If a store is being robbed on your block, you wouldn't not call the cops because a police response wouldn't also extinguish a house fire a few blocks away. This is not an all-or-nothing proposition. As for the aforementioned new polling, Trump may be pleased to see that support for 'The Wall' has increased noticeably lately, even as a small majority continues to oppose it. The spread among registered voters is even closer:
There is a rather large all adults vs. registered voter gap for building the wall in the ABC News/Washington Post poll. pic.twitter.com/Ne4SGuu4Vw— (((Harry Enten))) (@ForecasterEnten) January 13, 2019
The shutdown-related survey questions are predictably gruesome for the GOP, with Trump shouldering the lion's share of blame -- which isn't exactly shocking when he's been out there taking ownership of it. His approval rating is again sliding into dangerous territory. Keep in mind that Democrats made big gains in 2018 despite Trump's numbers being relatively strong, amid a robust economy. I continue to hope that the president's "solution" to extricating himself from this quagmire is not an attempted invocation of emergency powers, based on a crisis that a large majority of Americans do not view as acute or legitimate enough to justify such a move. The strongest play for Republicans right now is to talk loudly and often about the need for a compromise. There's a large and receptive audience for that sort of messaging, and it could potentially drive a wedge between Democratic leaders and their base:
WaPo poll pretty gruesome for Trump...BUT support for The Wall has increased to 46% among RVs, & nearly half of wall *opponents* believe Dems should compromise to help end the partial shutdown. Best play for cornered GOP right now is to heavily emphasize need for compromise: pic.twitter.com/2q76M7nFHp— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) January 13, 2019