Border wall

Democrats' Wall Funding Fiasco

They got nothing in return for handing Trump money except for a national emergency.


John McIntosh via

Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed this week on a border enforcement funding deal to avert another government shutdown. Both houses of Congress have approved it, and President Donald Trump signed it—and then declared a national emergency to get the balance of the wall funds that Congress refused to give him. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has already said he'll support the declaration.

So after all the drama of the last few months, did the Democrats accomplish anything beyond virtue-signaling to their base? And the resounding answer is: No.

After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged not to give Trump even a dollar for his wall, Democrats agreed to hand him $1.375 billion to build a 55-mile long barrier in the Rio Grande Valley. They also agreed to hand the Department of Homeland Security an additional $1.7 billion for border security, including more officers, more technology at ports of entry, and, as an afterthought, some humanitarian aid.

Even worse, Democrats capitulated to Trump's demand for statutorily expanding detention bed capacity to house unauthorized and fleeing immigrants, the lynchpin of his draconian enforcement actions.

Handing Trump some wall money might have been worth it if Democrats had got something in return like legalizing the DREAMers (folks who've grown up in America after being brought to the country without proper authorization as minors) and others whose temporary protected status Trump scrapped. But Democrats failed to even put this on the table despite many hints by Republicans that they would consider a DREAMer-for-wall deal. Nor did they make the wall money conditional on Trump refraining from declaring a national emergency, which he's been hinting at for months.

Why did the Democrats botch this so badly? Because they were motivated by two contradictory concerns. They wanted to rally their base rather than solve the issue, while at the same time they did not want to be blamed for another government shutdown. So they stared down the presdient for a while and then blinked.

Democrats originally insisted on limiting funding for "only" 35,000 detention beds with the stipulation that no more than 16,500 would be used for housing immigrants picked up from the interior, i.e. not at the border. This was a very modest attempt to restore some sanity—and humanity—to this administration's interior enforcement policies, given that the first thing that Trump did upon assuming office was scrap former President Barack Obama's priority enforcement program. This program, implemented at the tail end of Obama's term after he'd set deportation records, confined ICE to rounding up only those aliens in the interior who had criminal records while leaving others alone. But Trump made everyone fair game, including those who've lived peacefully in the country for years.

To aid Trump's efforts, the Republican-controlled Congress gave him funds for around 40,500 detention beds. This represented about a 6,500 increase over previous years. But Trump exceeded even that inflated authorization, maintaining a daily population of 48,000 detained immigrants—including 20,000 from the interior.

Where did that money come from? Basically, by raiding the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies within the Department of Homeland Security, arguably a violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act, the federal law that prohibits agencies from diverting funds not explicitly authorized by Congress. All in all, DHS spent $4.1 billion on ICE's detention and removal operations in 2018, a 30 percent spike over the $3.2 billion spent in 2016. This is an unconscionable waste given that border apprehensions have dropped precipitously over the last decade, Trump's fear mongering about the migrant caravan notwithstanding.

Trump says that any cutbacks in this detention capacity would force him to release violent aliens. But that's simply not true. An analysis last summer by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found that 75 percent of the immigrants typically detained have no prior convictions or have been engaged in only minor offenses like traffic violations. This means that even if Trump's detention capacity were cut in less than half, no violent offenders would need to be released.

But that didn't stop Trump from demanding funding for 52,000 beds during the budget negotiations. The Democrats didn't give him that but they agreed to fund 40,520 beds—or 5,520 over their original offer and pretty much what the Republican-controlled Congress handed Trump last year. Worse, this is not a hard statuary cap so Trump can keep trying to exceed it by ginning up funds from elsewhere as he's been doing. (It's unclear right now if Democrats are insisting on any limits on housing interior detentions.)

Democrats are trying to sell this as a reasonable compromise by claiming that this funding level represents a 17 percent cut in detention over current levels. But Trump was maintaining those levels using unauthorized funds. In other words, far from calling out Trump for illegally exceeding Congressional limits, Democrats are using Trump's detention levels as their official baseline.

So, all in all, Trump got more money for a border barrier, enhanced border security, and increased detention capacity. And he'll declare a national emergency to get the rest of what he wants.

What did Democrats get? Absolutely nothing. Zilch. Nada.

A version of this column was originally published in The Week