Tim Griffin: Border Security and Government Shut Down

Brunswick Geopolitical asked Tim Griffin to reflect on and explain the current situation in the United States concerning the government impasse and President Trump’s border security policy.

Tim Griffin is a Senior Counselor at Brunswick Group, based from our Washington, D.C. office. Tim is currently serving as lieutenant governor of Arkansas (Republican). He was previously elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served on the Ways and Means Committee, was Deputy Majority Whip for the Republican caucus, and was Vice Chair for Strategy and Communications at the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). These notes are his personal views.

During yesterday’s State of the Union address, President Trump reiterated his desire for a wall on the USA’s southern border: “No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration... Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.” 

 What is the state of U.S. border security?

The U.S.-Mexico border runs 1,933 from the Pacific Ocean to southern Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. Roughly 700 miles of the border currently have fencing. How the border is secured can vary greatly depending on the specific location. For all the discussion of a “wall,” only a small percentage of the border barriers could reasonably be considered a wall; most of it is fencing. 

 In heavily populated areas, such as the border between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico, extensive fencing and a heavy border patrol presence are the primary means of security. In remote areas of New Mexico and Texas, a mix of various border security solutions are used. Some areas have short fences, which vary in shape, style, and construction material. In areas without fencing, vehicles, helicopters, and drones help surveil the border. Some areas have barriers that prevent vehicles from crossing but are easy for humans to cross. For a portion of the border, the Rio Grande serves as a natural barrier, although many immigrants are able to cross by raft. Other natural barriers, such as mountain ranges and the Chihuahuan Desert, are less vulnerable to crossing.

While the largest source of illegal immigration results from legal visitors who overstay their visas, the number of border apprehensions has fluctuated between 300,000 and 500,000 per year for the past several years. The actual number of illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S. is currently estimated to be between 10-12 million, although some estimates place the number above 20 million.

Wasn’t border security and wall funding already approved years ago?

Yes, partially. In 2006, President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized approximately 700 miles of double-layered fencing, in addition to various other security measures. The measure received 80 votes in the U.S. Senate, including the support of key Democrats like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and then-Senators Barack Obama (D-IL) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY).

However, while the 2006 legislation authorized double-layered fencing, the legislation was weakened by a subsequent 2007 amendment that gave the U.S. Department of Homeland Security the discretion to determine whether fencing was the most appropriate security solution in a particular instance. The result was just 36.3 miles of double-layer fencing and mostly single-layer fencing, along with barriers that prevent vehicles from crossing, but not pedestrians.

What is the relationship between border security and the government shutdown? 

One of the issues that helped propel President Trump past a field of sixteen other Republican primary candidates was his hawkish view on border security and immigration. To many in the Republican base, these issues have long been ones on which Republican leaders have said one thing and done another. Republican leaders have historically been more aligned with the business community and donor class who favor the free flow of labor than with the grassroots, who emphasize security and control of the border.

Previously, leaders like President George W. Bush and 2008 nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) championed bipartisan immigration overhauls that ultimately failed because they did not do enough to assuage the border security concerns of grassroots Republicans. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which granted amnesty to many illegal immigrants but failed to provide the border security necessary to prevent further illegal immigration. While many grassroots Republicans consider President Reagan a hero of the conservative movement, those same Republicans consider the Simpson-Mazzoli Act to be President Reagan’s greatest mistake. In border security, then-candidate Donald Trump saw an issue that Republican leaders had failed to deliver on and seized the issue as a hallmark of his 2016 campaign,  Although “border security” can mean different things to different people, President Trump has made it clear that a border wall is essential for border security, and his calls to “build the wall” provided a vivid image of his commitment to secure the border.

Given the outsized role President Trump’s promises of a wall and border security played in the campaign, it is important for his 2020 re-election efforts that he follow through on them. During his first two years, funding for a border wall took a back seat to priorities such as federal tax reform and a pair of Supreme Court confirmation battles. At the end of last year, after Republicans lost control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the President faced criticism from conservative media outlets for having failed to deliver on construction of a border wall. All of this led to a renewed focus on passing funding for border security, specifically the border wall Trump had promised. President Trump recently backed away from his campaign rhetoric that Mexico would pay for construction of the wall. Meanwhile, Republicans are less concerned with who is going to pay for the wall than with the fact that it gets built.

Politicians in both parties are on record as supporting robust border security along the U.S.-Mexico border. Prominent Democrats, such as President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) have all called, sometimes forcefully, for stronger border security at various points in their careers. President George W. Bush got billions for border security and physical barriers at the southern border during Nancy Pelosi’s first term as speaker. But the disdain for President Trump among Democratic base voters makes this issue much more politically explosive, and consequently, more complicated than it used to be.

Democrats believe that President Trump is using a shutdown to obtain funding for a border wall that he could not otherwise get through the legislative process.  Further, polling found only 9 percent of Democratic voters support a wall. Most Democrats conflate the imagery of a wall along the southern border with xenophobic opposition not only to illegal immigrants, but also immigrants generally. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s description of the border wall as “immoral” summarizes their position. The recent controversy regarding the Trump Administration’s handling of illegal immigrant families at the southern border—particularly the separation of children from their parents—has further solidified Democratic opposition to President Trump on the border issue. On the other hand, Republicans view border security as national security and as a long-overdue measure to stem the flow of illegal immigration, drugs, and crime. A major reason for the impasse is that there is very little incentive for either party’s leaders to ignore such an overwhelming majority of their base voters.

How does the border security shutdown impasse end?

After 35 days, the longest government shutdown in history, President Trump agreed to sign a temporary government funding bill that provided no border wall funding. A series of negative stories highlighted the financial burden of the shutdown on 800,000 furloughed federal workers and the breakdown in critical services such as air traffic control and airport security. It is widely believed that these stories and polls that indicated Americans disproportionally blamed President Trump over Democrats led to the three-week government funding agreement.  

Democratic leaders indicated that once President Trump reopened the government, they would negotiate on border security funding. If the negotiations break down, we could be looking at the prospect of another government shutdown.  President Trump has pledged to invoke his emergency powers to bypass Congress and build the wall if Democrats don’t agree to border security funding. An invocation of emergency powers would almost certainly land in the federal court system.  Reporters and political observers have widely credited Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) with outmaneuvering President Trump and “winning” the shutdown battle. Speaker’s Pelosi resurgence will put additional pressure on President Trump to reach an agreement that he can reasonably characterize as a political victory. Regardless of the outcome, both parties will attempt to use the issue to their advantage as the 2020 Presidential campaigns heats up.