Trump's National Guard Deployment to the Border Is Political Theater, Just Like Obama's and Bush's

Border Patrol guards average just two illegal-immigrant apprehensions per month; they don't need reinforcements.


Donderoooooo!!! ||| Rick D'Elia/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Rick D'Elia/ZUMA Press/Newscom

President Donald Trump, like his two immediate predecessors, has signed an order that will send an as-yet unknown number of National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico to assist Border Patrol agents and also attend to the president's own short-term political needs.

If you think the above sentence is unfair in any way to the more immigrant-friendly George W. Bush, dial the wayback machine to May 2006, and note that Bush made the announcement on the exact same friggin' day that the Senate began debating an ill-fated comprehensive immigration reform package. If you think I'm being mean to Barack Obama, check out the Washington Post in 2010 noting that Obama's muscle-flexing, like Bush's, was openly intended to demonstrate credibility in advance of reform negotiations: "Then, as now, the troop deployment was fueled by heightened concerns about lawlessness—then it was illegal immigration, now it is drug traffickers—as well as political maneuvering in Washington to lay the groundwork for an effort to change immigration policy."

And if you think Trump alone of the three should be spared charges of political theatricality, consider that the 19,437 agents who work for the Border Patrol arrested between them 37,393 people attempting to cross northward across the border in March. That's two arrests per agent, on average, in a month. The month prior to Obama's move, there were 55,237 arrests made by 17,000 or so agents, or more than three per agent. And apprehensions the month before Bush moved were 126,538, or more than 12 per agent. So the president is throwing more money and manpower at a problem that is shrinking by the minute.

You can't go very wrong in 21st century American politics throwing ever-larger buckets of money at enforcement along the southern border. As Greg Beato noted in these pages six years ago, money and manpower along the Rio Grande had already tripled over the previous decade. But as El Paso–based Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) told me in 2015 after Trump first rode anti-illegal-immigration sentiment to the top of the polls, "You're really working against the law of diminishing returns at this point."

When you double the size of an agency in less than a decade, bad things can happen. "That rapid increase in staffing [under Bush] came with some problems," the San Diego Union-Tribune reported last year. "Hiring standards were lowered, training at the Border Patrol Academy truncated, and background checks—a crucial step—were delayed or not performed at all….About 170 border law enforcement agents and officers who have been arrested, indicted or convicted in corruption cases since 2002. Officials would later acknowledge the pressure to meet the hiring goals allowed less qualified candidates onto the force, and fueled in part a surge in the cases."

Trump is not necessarily governing in response to facts on the ground (which as he noted this morning in a rare moment of immigration policy honesty includes a historic low in illegal border crossings), but rather to the political imperatives created by his apocalyptic fantasies. This is someone who campaigned on nightmare border-footage that came from, um, Morocco. And just today, referencing the migrant caravan that's losing steam in Mexico, the president said, "Remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower when I opened. Everybody said, 'Oh, he was so tough.' And I used the word 'rape.' And yesterday it came out where, this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don't want to mention that."

With Congress continuing to refuse Trump his border money, and failing to present to him any immigration compromise (not that he has been anything but unhelpful during negotiations), the chief executive is left to that old standby: "Stonewalling by Members of Congress," the White House said in a statement, "has prevented our dedicated Border Patrol agents from getting the resources they so desperately need. Inaction has left glaring loopholes open and crucial legal authorities unauthorized, so the President is taking action and using his existing powers to fill these gaps."

In other words, like his predecessors, he's reaching for his pen and phone.