Commentary

Senate Takes Another Meaningless Wall Vote Only for Trump to Likely Veto It – Again

By Andrew Arthur | September 27, 2019 | 4:21pm EDT
President Donald J. Trump (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The Senate voted this week to terminate the national emergency declared by the president on February 15, 2019. That declaration allowed the Department of Defense (DoD) to move appropriated funds from other accounts into the account DoD uses to fund its counternarcotic efforts in order to undertake construction of border barriers in certain areas in California, Arizona, and Texas. The vote is meaningless because the president will likely veto it again, as he did with a prior iteration.

I wrote about the president's declaration last month, in connection with a Supreme Court decision that allowed that funding to proceed. The Department of Justice's application to the Court in connection with that order noted the following:

“On February 25, 2019, DHS submitted a request to DoD for DoD's assistance, pursuant to 10 U.S.C. 284, ‘with the construction of fences[,] roads, and lighting’ within 11 specified project areas, ‘to block drug-smuggling corridors across the international boundary between the United States and Mexico.’

...

“On March 25, 2019, the Acting Secretary of Defense approved DHS's request with respect to three projects, including two at issue here: ‘Yuma Sector Project 1’ in Arizona and ‘El Paso Sector Project 1’ in New Mexico. ... DHS had identified those projects as among its highest priorities, based on the volume of drug smuggling that occurs between ports of entry in those parts of the border.

...

“The Acting Secretary ultimately approved up to $1 billion of DoD assistance, including assistance to replace ineffective existing barriers in the Yuma and El Paso Sectors with 30-foot-high fencing, as DHS had requested.”

The barrier funding in question is intended to block the flow of drugs into the United States. Here is what the proclamation that started the process stated:

“The current situation at the southern border presents a border security and humanitarian crisis that threatens core national security interests and constitutes a national emergency. The southern border is a major entry point for criminals, gang members, and illicit narcotics.”

While the drug argument may seem like a fig leaf to cover the intent of the president to block the flow of illegal aliens (and criminals), it is not, because the issues are all intertwined. U.S. Border Patrol has the duty of stopping drugs from entering the United States between the ports of entry, as well as apprehending criminals and aliens who are attempting to enter illegally. As its agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) notes on its website:

“An increase in smuggling activities has pushed the Border Patrol to the front line of the U.S. war on drugs. Our role as the primary drug-interdicting organization along the Southwest border continues to expand.

“The heightened presence of Border Patrol agents along the Southwest border has burdened narcotic traffickers and alien smugglers.”

Well, the heightened presence of Border Patrol agents would burden narcotic traffickers and alien smugglers, at least in a vacuum. The border, like nature though, abhors a vacuum.

According to CBP, last month the Border Patrol apprehended 64,006 aliens attempting to enter illegally between the ports of entry, including 25,057 aliens in family units (FMUs) and 3,729 unaccompanied alien minors (UACs). While these numbers are down significantly from May 2019 (132,859 apprehensions, of whom 84,490 were in FMUs and 11,475 were UACs), these are still pretty eye-popping numbers.

By way of comparison, USA Today has estimated that there were "as many as 18,600 Border Patrol agents deployed along the southern border" as of 2016. While this is almost 10 agents per mile along the 1,954-mile border, it actually equals out to many fewer at any given time. Some agents serve in supervisory roles, while others are performing administrative functions. Most importantly, however, agents serve long hours, but not 24 hours a day. On any given shift, the number of agents actually patrolling the border is far lower; agents work 50 hour weeks, meaning (best-case scenario) that just less than 30 percent of those agents (5,536) are working at any given time, assuming no overlapping shifts.

The time that it takes to process those FMUs and UACs is a lot longer than it takes Border Patrol to process a single adult from Mexico, 78.5 hours as opposed to eight, according to my research. That means that to process every alien in an FMU or every UAC takes the weekly manpower of 1.57 agents.

Drug cartels know this, and exploit it in many ways, as Acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Ken Cuccinelli explained yesterday in a Center for Immigration Studies Newsmaker interview. FMUs and UACs are a double bonus for those criminals: They make money by allowing foreign nationals to cross "their" territory, and they direct those migrants in a manner to tie up Border Patrol agents to enable the cartels to smuggle their drugs across the now-understaffed border.

Barriers are a force-multiplier for the Border Patrol in all of its duties. They slow down migrants, ordinary criminals, terrorists, and drug-traffickers as they attempt to enter illegally, giving those agents more time to respond to incursions. Barriers are not particularly helpful, curiously, in stopping illegal migrants who are coming to make credible fear claims: they wait patiently for the Border Patrol to show up and let them in.

They are most effective in stopping drive-through vehicles carrying contraband (and in particular drugs), as I have previously explained, describing facts I learned during a trip to the Yuma Border Patrol Sector, where there is fencing along most of the border:

“In FY 2005, I was told, there were 2,700 drive-throughs in the Yuma Sector. One of those drive-throughs, as I noted in a February 5, 2019, post, resulted in the January 19, 2008, murder of Senior Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar. By FY 2010, when border infrastructure was in place, the number of drive-throughs dropped to two. Not 2,000, but one more than one.”

So there must be some really pressing DoD projects that are being sidelined, prompting the U.S. Senate to get involved to re-redirect the funding in question, right? A new aircraft carrier to "show the flag" in the face of Chinese expansion, or desperately needed drone defenses to protect oil facilities from Iranian (or Houthi) attacks?

Um, not quite. The Washington Post includes on its list of "pending DOD projects" (subhead: "These are the states most affected by Trump's border budget wall deferrals") five shooting ranges, a dining facility and access road, a childcare center, a middle school, an equipment facility, and a flight simulator building, as well as "Buildings for military academy" in New York, most likely West Point.

One of those shooting ranges is in Oklahoma, a state where I have spent a lot of time. Most denizens of the Sooner state who want to get target practice set out some bales (or empties) on a field. I am not telling DoD how to spend its money, but I can give them the names of some folks who can help them stand one up at a cost of less than $8 million.

And I am not sure that the 1,183 new cadets admitted to the U.S. Military Academy this year is significantly higher than any year in the last two decades (if not much longer) making me think the new $160 million in buildings can wait a few months.

Speaking of education, while I am all about middle schools and childcare centers, I trust that (as in most localities) a few trailers can fill the void at existing facilities for a handful of weeks.

Compare the list to the cost of additional drugs getting across the border. The latest estimate from the National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) (from 2007) put the total costs of illicit drugs at $193 billion, including $11 billion in health care. I seriously doubt (based upon my experience in my erstwhile hometown, Baltimore) that these numbers have dipped precipitously in the last 12 years.

The Centers for Disease Control estimated that in the 12 months preceding February 2019, there were 69,029 overdose deaths in the United States. NIDA put the number of deaths from heroin in 2017 at 15,482 and "Psychostimulants With Abuse Potential (Including Methamphetamine)" that year at 10,333. As the Center for Immigration Studies has reported: "Notably, 90 percent of the heroin and up to 80 percent of the methamphetamine that is poisoning America's cities is produced in Mexico and imported into the United States illegally."

So with all that, why would a majority of the Senate want to stop the construction of barriers to prevent that costly flow of death? Some undoubtedly have principled positions, but as the Post reports:

“When senators last voted on the issue, the Pentagon had not released a list of the $3.6 billion in military construction projects that were being canceled to pay for Trump's border barrier.

“But it was released earlier this month, and senators have a list of the specific projects in their states that are being scrapped to free up funding for Trump's wall. That dynamic created new pressure for GOP senators, especially those up for reelection in 2020, to weigh their allegiance to Trump and his border wall against their support for much-needed projects at military bases and installations back home.” [Emphasis added.]

That is a nice way to say it, consistent with the paper's editorial policy. Respectfully, however, states do not have a defense policy; the United States does. Is the senator from, say, Alaska, concerned about a Canadian incursion? Or, the gentleman from Mississippi gripped by the prospect of the Cubans getting frisky and attacking Biloxi? No, but they are interested in bringing funds (and jobs) to their home states. In Washington, we call that “pork.”

Of course, every Democrat (who isn't on the presidential campaign trail) voted in favor of the resolution, but they would likely vote against Donald Trump on one of his signature issues even if no money were at stake at all (or if it actually cost them money).

Again, all of this is for show. The House will likely pass the resolution, and the president will veto it, again. More people will die, and the economic costs of the drug epidemic will continue. And the American people will grow more bitter, cynical, and divided.

Andrew “Art” Arthur serves as Resident Fellow in Law and Policy for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, DC-based research institute that examines the impact of immigration on American society.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by the Center for Immigration Studies.

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