During the many rallies of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, no chants ever rang quite as loudly as, “Build that wall!” Yet nearly two years into his presidency, the wall remains unbuilt and Republican congressional leaders look likely to capitulate on yet another funding fight. While a border wall is likely not the highest priority fix for border security nor the most effective, failure to win on wall funding yet again threatens to seriously demoralize the Trump base and send the signal to the rest of the world that our southern border remains unsecured.
House leaders unveiled a bill this week to extend government funding until Dec. 21, moving the shutdown battle up to right before Christmas. That makes it even less likely that President Trump will get the $5 billion in wall funding that he wants (which itself would only pay for a fraction of the wall’s total cost), at a time when the number of Central American families showing up to our southern border has risen rapidly in recent months.
But why do we need a wall? A major benefit of a wall is that it would restrict the flow of drugs into our country. In 2017, over 48,000 Americans died of opioid-related overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That same year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized 953 pounds of heroin. Barriers along the border (including a wall where needed) would push smugglers toward ports of entry, where it is significantly more likely that drugs would be detected. Strategic walling could save thousands of lives.
As for the flow of people, a wall is certainly important—but it is an incomplete solution if it is not paired with asylum law reform. Even a 50-foot above-and-below-ground wall is ineffective when any unaccompanied minor or family can show up to a port of entry, claim a credible fear of persecution, and then—rather than be detained until their asylum hearing—simply be released into the interior of the country. It’s no surprise that almost half of all migrants who claim credible fear do not even bother to apply for asylum once they’re let in. Even among those who do, many fail to show up to their court date months or years down the line and of those who do show up, only 30 percent are ultimately granted asylum.
The effects of these policies can be seen in the apprehension numbers. Even as rates of violence continue to fall in El Salvador and Honduras, the number of migrants showing up at ports of entry has risen because our laws reward that behavior. In September, a record 16,658 family members illegally entering the country were arrested by Border Patrol, up 80 percent from July. As such, the president must pair a wall with action from Congress to plug asylum loopholes and create more detention space to end the current practice known as “catch-and-release.” Further, the new Attorney General must continue the work of Jeff Sessions to increase the number of immigration judges in order to process the backlog in immigration courts, which just last month surpassed one million cases. The broad point is that a wall is part of the solution to illegal immigration, but it’s not the full answer.
In fact, a new bill sponsored by Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), John Kennedy (R-La.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the WALL Act, would address many of these issues. It would fund the border wall by closing loopholes that allow illegal immigrants to receive federal benefits, reduce fraudulent asylum claims by requiring that migrants declare asylum at embassies or consulates before entering the country, and crack down on migrants who fail to show up to immigration court.
President Trump campaigned on the construction of a southern border wall to address the very real concerns of illegal immigration. In order to restrict the flow of drugs and migrants across our border and demonstrate that he is serious on illegal immigration, Trump ought to fight tooth-and-nail with both Democratic and Republican leadership for the wall, accepting a shutdown if necessary. But, we need serious asylum reform to solve the problem of illegal immigration; a wall alone is not enough. As such, trading away too much to the Democrats, such as major increases in the number of worker visas in exchange for the wall, risks being just as dangerous as no wall at all.
With the funding battle pushed so close to Christmas, the clock will be ticking for Trump to finally receive the $5 billion he desperately feels is needed. Let’s hope he can do it without striking a Faustian bargain with the members of both parties who may not share his belief in secure borders.
Matthew Sussis is Assistant Director of Communications for the Center for Immigration Studies.