Views My Own

Republicans Don't Really Want to Secure the Border

The GOP could have gotten money for border security and even built Trump's wall if they were willing to deal with Democrats. But the party has instead embraced anti-immigration extremism.
January 4, 2019, 11:12pm
Trump and his border wall.
Photo of Trump by Spencer Platt/Getty; photo of a border barrier under construction by HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty

Portions of the federal bureaucracy have been shut down since December 22, after Donald Trump demanded Congress budget $5 billion for a wall on the southern border and lawmakers—Democrats in particular—refused to include that in spending bill required to fund the government. As a result, around 800,000 government employees are temporarily out of work or working without pay and may struggle to pay rent; meanwhile, many of the jobs they would be doing, like keeping national parks clean, are not being done at all.

The reason Trump and his allies are demanding a wall, they say, is a "crisis" at the southern border. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen criticized Congress for not addressing the "growing security and humanitarian crisis" on Saturday; Trump echoed that rhetoric and demanded "a government funding bill that secures the border and keeps Americans safe" in a letter to Congress on Friday.

This is dishonest in a couple different ways. Firstly, the "crisis" narrative is largely manufactured—illegal border crossing apprehensions have been falling for years, according to available data, and even Trump claimed that the border was "secure" last month. If there is a crisis in regards to immigration it's that there's a massive backlog of asylum cases in the court system, and authorities are failing to quickly process claims from migrants waiting at the southern border in deplorable conditions. But of course, a wall won't do anything to solve those problems, and in fact Trump's supposedly tough immigration policy has fed them.

The second bit of dishonesty is that if Republicans were really concerned with border security, they've had chance after chance to address it through legislation over the past decade. Instead, both before Trump and during his administration the GOP has scuttled many compromises on immigration that would have given them the border security they say they want. Let's run the tape:


The politics of immigration were very different 12 years ago. As Trump and others have noted, many Democrats voted in 2006 for the "Secure Fence Act" that called for new security measures along 700 miles of the border. (There's a longstanding debate about how effective that kind of approach, a mix of fencing and other barriers, is compared to other border enforcement methods.) But that was only signed into law after a larger compromise package failed to pass.

That compromise, passed by the Senate in May and largely supported by President George W. Bush, would have built border fencing and more jail cells for deportees, and declared English the national language. But it also would have created a guest worker program and allowed undocumented people to remain in the country and in some cases become citizens—a policy many Democrats and even some Republicans supported but which was derided as "amnesty" by portions of the right. The bill never went anywhere in the House, as Speaker Dennis Hastert (who was years later sent to prison after sexually abusing wrestlers he coached) slow-walked it and failed to bring it up for a vote.


That failure didn't dampen demands for a bipartisan compromise that secured the border while offering a way for millions of undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows. The Bush White House put out a framework that offered a way to achieve those objectives. Features of this plan included a guest worker program, a worker database that would help prevent employers from hiring undocumented immigrants, and a pathway undocumented people could use to get a green card, though that process would take years. The resulting bill had support from Democrats and Republicans, but it ultimately couldn't even get a simple majority in the Senate.

Many at the time and later blamed its failure on a "poison pill" amendment that would have put an expiration date on the guest worker program. Introduced by a Democrat at the behest of unions, it was backed by then Senator Barack Obama and several Republicans who voted for it because they knew it would make the compromise unworkable. Though there is some doubt that the legislation would have become law even without that poison pill, the 2007 failure showed that while there was bipartisan support for an immigration compromise, there was also opposition to it from Democrats.


The politics of this issue began to shift during the Obama administration, as the Republican Party, never fully on board with the idea of immigration reform that included any relief for undocumented people, became more stridently nativist. But some GOP senators were still working on a compromise. Notably, Lindsey Graham wrote a March Washington Post op-ed with Democrat Chuck Schumer calling for increased border security along with a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants. But appetite for a compromise vanished as Republicans supported a harsh anti–immigrant law in Arizona and Graham rescinded his support for a compromise. Democrats still backed a security-and-legal-status reform package, but without much hope of it becoming law, since Republicans wouldn't take that deal. Any sort of support for what the right called "amnesty" was regarded as toxic, which is one likely reason John McCain, a previous reform sponsor, abandoned the issue around this time.


But by 2013, the dynamic had shifted again, or so many people thought. As ProPublica's Alec MacGillis would later write, after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election in part because he only got 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, many Republicans were looking at immigration reform as a way to get that demographic back and avoid becoming a party exclusively made up of whites. In the Senate, a bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that included four members of each party came up with a by-now-familiar framework: On one hand, there would be increased border security and measures intended to make it harder to hire undocumented workers; on the other, millions of undocumented people would be provided a pathway to citizenship.

The resulting bill passed the Senate, but the real obstacle, as it was in the Hastert era, was the House, which Republicans controlled after the Tea Party wave of 2010 put many extreme anti-immigration conservatives in office. In early 2014, GOP leaders including Speaker John Boehner introduced some principles that indicated there might be room for a compromise: They didn't support citizenship for all undocumented people, but would allow them to live and work in the US.

But then Boehner essentially bailed, saying, "There's widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws. And it's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes." This was perhaps a curious line of criticism, given that Obama's border policies around this time earned him the title "deporter in chief" from America's largest Latino advocacy group, but the bottom line was that conservative Republicans weren't interested in reform.

In the following years, there was little hope of compromise as the parties drifted further apart on the issue. Obama used his powers as president to shield some undocumented people brought to the US as children—a.k.a. "dreamers"—from deportation, while the GOP became increasingly anti-immigration, to the point that Marco Rubio, a member of the Gang of Eight, rejected his previous position on the issue to appeal to voters in the 2016 primary.


The 2016 election created a new obstacle to compromise legislation, as Trump was far more flagrantly racist and cruel than previous Republican presidents. Still, he had made extensive promises about building a wall, and to do so he needed at least some Democratic support, setting the stage for an obvious deal where a wall gets built in exchange for some Democratic policies.

But after a heated debate in the Senate that included a short, Democrat-led government shutdown, a series of votes for bills along those lines in early 2018 failed thanks to widespread Republican opposition. Trump maintains that the problem is federal courts have blocked his efforts to remove those protections for dreamers, making the Democrats reticent to agree to any deal involving them. But Senate Minority Leader Schumer reportedly offered to give Trump as much as $25 billion for border security, including money for the wall, in exchange for protections for dreamers—an offer Trump rejected last January. And Trump later indicated he was not willing to negotiate along those lines.


The current state of the shutdown-and-wall negotiation is muddled, in part because Trump is such an unreliable bargaining partner. But the basic dynamic is the same as it has been for years: Democrats are largely willing, even eager, to agree to a deal that includes more border security in exchange for some protections for undocumented people. Last year, Illinois Democratic Congressman Luis Gutiérrez even said of Trump's wall, “I’ll take a bucket, take bricks, and start building it myself,” if it meant dreamers would be shielded from deportation.

The problem is that since 2007—when, you could argue, Democrats were at least partly responsible for the failure of a reform bill—Republicans have consistently refused to compromise without offering a credible alternative. If Trump really wanted a wall, he could trade it for something with Democrats. Instead, he's holding the government hostage in an attempt to get $5 billion in exchange for nothing. A rambling Friday press conference where he threatened to keep the shutdown going for years didn't help. Some conservatives have hinted they'd be willing to trade dreamer protections for the wall, but there are other indications that the nativist crew at the White House will want much more in the way of concessions from Democrats, making a deal seem impossible.

The only thing that's clear is that Republicans don't want to secure the supposedly porous border. They want to gin up fear and have a big shouting match. That's pretty much the only thing you can count on at this point.

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