Enough with the 'Either-Or' Wall Arguments

Trump doesn't want just a wall

By Andrew R. Arthur on January 19, 2019

I am convinced that the government shutdown will end when I run out of "wall" arguments to refute. Regrettably, that day never comes.

On January 16, for example, Real Clear Politics included in its articles for the morning one captioned "Why Trump's 'big, beautiful' border wall will never work", by Andrew Gawthorpe, PhD, in the Guardian (UK). It is indicative of the "either-or" arguments that are, unfortunately, driving this debate.

Actually, many of the real "fixes" that Gawthorpe asserts are necessary are already included in the president's budget request, as I explained in my January 9 post captioned "If You Don't Fund Judges, Don't Complain About Backlogs: And other takeaways from the president's border security funding request". Somehow, the finer points of that request get lost in the debate over the government shutdown, most likely because the president's Democratic opponents don't want to discuss them, and because the press for whatever reason follows along. Here is an excerpt from that post:

Lost in the national conversation over the border-security shutdown (media reports of which have focused almost exclusively on "the Wall") are the president's other budgetary requests, which, according to CBS News, are as follows:

$563 million for 75 additional immigration judges and support staff, $211 million to hire 750 additional Border Patrol officers, $571 million to deploy 2,000 law enforcement personnel, $4.2 billion for 52,000 detention beds, $675 million for inspection technology at ports of entry and $800 million for "humanitarian needs," which include funds for medical support, transportation, supplies and temporary facilities along the southwestern border.

Gawthorpe begins:

Immigration policy is usually driven by perception much more than it is by reality. And at the heart of these perceptions is the question of how we think about the border. Is it a dark and dangerous place, under siege by aliens who come to spread crime and pestilence? Or is it a place of give-and-take, where our nation must deal with the outside world in a way consonant with our values and showing awareness that absolute sovereignty is a dangerous illusion?

By now, the world knows that Donald Trump thinks of the border primarily as a threat. It is the nation's weakest point, where it regrettably must have interchange with the dark forces that lie beyond the land of the free. Over it flow criminals, drugs, fictitious "unknown Middle Easterners" (by which he means terrorists) and migrants in general.

His solution is to seal the border as tightly as possible with a "big, beautiful wall" while also cracking down on legal routes of entry into the United States. By defending the nation's vulnerable underbelly, the wall can restore American sovereignty and greatness.

Some of the points Gawthorpe presents as true are false, and some of the ones that he presents as false are true. That is the problem with binary arguments such as this.

Let's begin with the central one, "the world knows that Donald Trump thinks of the border primarily as a threat." That may be a true statement, but is not the truth. The world may "know" that, but is not how the president thinks of things, at least judging by his statements.

On January 8, 2019, the president gave an address from the White House in which he made the following statement: "America proudly welcomes millions of lawful immigrants who enrich our society and contribute to our nation." Well, if we welcome them, where do they come from? Across a border, even a "virtual" one such as a port of entry. The president does go on to state:

But all Americans are hurt by uncontrolled, illegal migration. It strains public resources and drives down jobs and wages. Among those hardest hit are African Americans and Hispanic Americans.

Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl. Every week, 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border. More Americans will die from drugs this year than were killed in the entire Vietnam War.

In the last two years, ICE officers made 266,000 arrests of aliens with criminal records, including those charged or convicted of 100,000 assaults, 30,000 sex crimes, and 4,000 violent killings. Over the years, thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country, and thousands more lives will be lost if we don't act right now.

Every one of those statements is true, as I explained to one degree or another in a January 14 post. Stating that the illicit flow of people, drugs, and contraband across the 1,954-mile border poses a danger to the United States is different from saying the border poses a threat. Instead, it simply reinforces a fact we all know to be true: There are threats along that undefended border that should be countered.

Gawthorpe continues:

The vision of an impenetrable wall stretching for thousands of miles appeals to those who mainly see the border as a source of danger and chaos. But the idea that bricks and mortar can solve the litany of challenges that borders bring is a dangerous illusion. Hermetically sealing a nation against the outside world is neither possible nor desirable.

Again, statements presented in that excerpt as true are false, and purported falsehoods therein are true. No one is calling for an "impenetrable wall stretching for thousands of miles". Almost a year ago, Byron York, in the Washington Examiner, published an opinion piece captioned "7 times Trump said wall not needed on all 2,000 miles of border". The following quote from the president is indicative of most of the rest:

Folks, when I say, "We're going to build a wall," most of them say, "You can't build a wall — build a wall." In China 2,000 years ago, they built the Great Wall of China, which is bigger than any wall we're thinking about, OK? The Great Wall of China goes 18,000 miles. We have 2,000 miles of which we only need 1,000 miles, because you have a lot of natural barriers, right, that are extremely tough to get across. We have 1,000 miles.

Now that that is out of the way, no one is proposing a barrier of "bricks and mortar", either. Plainly this is an allusion, but in essence it's the sort of allusion that Gawthorpe criticizes the president for. Presently, the president is proposing a steel barrier, for what it's worth. In any event, $5.7 billion would get you a few hundred miles of steel fence, not "thousands of miles".

The argument: "Hermetically sealing a nation against the outside world is neither possible nor desirable" is a straw man. No one is proposing any such plan, nor would it be possible, unless we beefed up our Coast Guard, closed all of our ports, and erected a wall across the Canadian border, as well.

Gawthorpe then goes on to state:

An impassable barrier that funnelled all cross-border traffic to legitimate ports of entry would do little to address the real challenges at the border. Foremost among these is the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees in recent years. Many travel as family units who voluntarily surrender themselves to US authorities to apply for asylum. Even if a wall could stop them crossing the border, they are still legally entitled to claim asylum at a port of entry. The wall wouldn't stop them.

It is a point that I have made ad nauseam, and my colleagues as well. We need to plug legal loopholes that encourage "family units" to put themselves and their children in danger. Besides, if they are refugees, they can contact the UN High Commissioner for Refugees offices in El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala. That does not mean that there should not also be barriers to stop illicit traffic where it is occurring. In fact, such barriers would direct migrants to the ports of entry, where they can be processed safely and efficiently, rather than entering vast areas of desert where they risk their lives, or the lives of their children.

More Gawthorpe:

Nor would it (the wall) do anything about what the Trump administration pejoratively calls "catch and release", the practice whereby refugees are released into the interior of the US while they wait for an asylum hearing. The immigration court system has a backlog of over 800,000 cases and desperately needs more staff and resources to give asylum seekers fair and speedy hearings. The wall won't help. Meanwhile, the manufactured crisis over wall funding which has shut down the government has forced immigration courts to close as well, exacerbating the backlog.

Except the president has also addressed these issues, and I have addressed them as well. Again, this is not an either-or proposition: You can have a reasonable amount of funding for the wall, more judges, and additional detention space. As for the furloughed judges, I have proposed putting them back to work on detained cases (where the courts are still open), which would actually cut down on the backlog. Win-win.

Back to Gawthorpe:

America's population of unauthorized residents is dropping and apprehensions at the southern border are at multi-decade lows. Most unauthorized migrants overstay their temporary visas rather than illicitly crossing the southern border. A wall is unlikely to have much impact on the number of people illegally present in the country.

I'm really unaware of any facts that back up the first proposition (and I likely would, given that I am in the business), and apprehensions are not at "multi-decade lows". The Washington Post reported on January 9 that in December 2018, "authorities detained 60,782 migrants attempting to enter the United States without authorization." It continued: "It marked the third consecutive month that the figure — the most widely used barometer of border trends — topped 60,000, remaining near the highest levels of the Trump presidency." (Emphasis added).

Further, as I noted in a January 14 post, the demographics of those entering illegally has changed and, because of flawed immigration laws, most of those entering illegally must be released rather than detained and removed:

In the early years of the millennium, the majority of aliens entering illegally were adult males, many if not most of whom were from Mexico. They could be returned to that country rather quickly after apprehension.

By contrast, according to CBP statistics, in FY 2019 CBP is now averaging 31,188 family units and UACs detained at and between the ports of entry a month, a 136 percent increase over FY 2017. In December 2018, in fact, almost 61 percent of all aliens deemed inadmissible at the ports of entry and apprehended entering between the ports were family units or UACs. Of those family units apprehended between the ports of entry, 95 percent are from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. Under the Flores settlement agreement and the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) , the children in those family units must be released in 20 days, as I explained in my May 2018 Backgrounder, and to avoid separating families, DHS releases the whole family within that period.

As for overstays, I refer back to my January 9 post, in which I discussed the 2,000 additional officers that the president is also seeking in his budget request:

[O]ne of the main complaints about a border wall is that it is not necessary for several reasons. For example, as the Texas Tribune reported in January 2018:

"Don't let the fake media tell you that I have changed my position on the wall," Trump tweeted in April. "It will get built and help stop drugs, human trafficking, etc." More recently, Trump has tied wall funding to any deal to give legal status to undocumented immigrants benefitting from a program known as DACA.

Still, those who think Trump's "big, beautiful wall" (he doesn't like to call it a "fence") would actually stop all or even most of the undocumented immigrants and illegal drugs coming across the border from Mexico might want to think again.

Since 2007, the number of undocumented immigrants who overstayed visas after first entering the country legally — across a bridge or port of entry — far outnumbered those who sneaked in, according to a 2017 report by the Center for Migration Studies. A wall would do nothing to stop them.

I hear this argument a lot, and there is some merit to it. It is, however, a little bit like saying that one solution won't solve every problem, so why utilize that one solution? But let's simply take it at face value. What would allow the U.S. government to apprehend visa overstays? Ending sanctuary policies would help, but that would appear to be a nonstarter for most Democrats. Absent that, the only solution is to provide more officers to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) to go and apprehend those visa overstays. If the Democrats will not fund 2,000 additional officers, however, they lose the "most illegal aliens entered legally and overstayed" argument, too.

More from Gawthorpe:

There is also little chance that a border wall would stop the flow of illegal drugs into the US. As the Drug Enforcement Agency acknowledges, the vast majority of illegal drugs that enter the country do so through legal ports of entry, hidden among legitimate traffic. Short of shutting or slowing down legitimate trade with Mexico, worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year, little can be done to stop this inflow – certainly not erecting a wall far away from where the drugs actually enter.

There's a lot packed into a little here, so let me take it piece by piece. Given the voracious American appetite for illegal drugs, and the seemingly endless supply of them abroad, nothing "would stop the flow of illegal drugs into the" United States. But that fact hardly undermines even a little the idea that the United States must do more to stop that flow. And we know that drugs pass over the border between the ports into the United States.

My February 2018 testimony before the House Committee on Natural Resources' Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations included the following:

In addition to aliens, Border Patrol Agents apprehended a significant quantity of narcotics in FY 2017. According to CBP, last year, agents seized 9,346 pounds of cocaine, 953 pounds of heroin, 861,231 pounds of marijuana, 10,328 pounds of methamphetamines, and 181 pounds of fentanyl.

In fact, in just the first three months of FY 2018,43 Border Patrol seized 161 additional pounds of fentanyl, a drug the Drug Enforcement Administration states is "30-50 times more potent than heroin and 50-100 times more potent than morphine." Oxford Treatment Center identifies two milligrams as a lethal dose of fentanyl, meaning that 161 pounds of the drug would be sufficient to kill 36,514,156 people.

To misparaphrase Stalin, one death is a tragedy, while 36,514,156 deaths is only a statistic. Not surprisingly, those numbers only climbed thereafter. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics, as of August 31, 2018, the Border Patrol had seized 6,423 pounds of cocaine, 532 pounds of heroin, 10,382 pounds of methamphetamine, and 332 pounds of fentanyl. Projecting just that quantity of fentanyl, and assuming that the flow of the drug had not increased during the last month of FY 2018, the Border Patrol would have seized more than 362 pounds of fentanyl in that year. One pound is 453,592.37 milligrams, meaning that 362 pounds of fentanyl is enough of the drug to kill more than 82,100,152 people. That is more people than live in California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

Plus, the trendline is going in the wrong direction. In FY 2017, Border Patrol seized 181 pounds of the drug, meaning that the quantity of fentanyl it seized approximately doubled in one year.

Admittedly, seizures at the ports are higher. In FY 2018 (as of August 31, 2018), CBP officers seized 47,945 pounds of cocaine, 4,813 pounds of heroin, 67,292 pounds of methamphetamine, and through July 2018, 1,357 pounds of fentanyl. Any border expert would tell you, however, that that is to be expected. At the ports of entry, according to the agency, "CBP has undertaken a number of initiatives, such as the use of non-intrusive inspection technology, to increase its ability to examine cargo effectively without slowing the flow of trade, which plays a significant part in the U.S. economy." Put another way, CBP is better able, and has more resources, to screen cargo (including vehicles containing drugs) at the ports of entry than it does between the ports.

It is curious, however, that wall skeptics inevitably fall back on the DEA's conclusions that "the vast majority of illegal drugs that enter the country do so through legal ports of entry, hidden among legitimate traffic." More than 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017 according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse, including nearly 30,000 "related to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs". If the DEA was such an expert on how drugs enter the United States, it could be argued, why would any drugs enter at all? Further, stating that most drugs enter the United States through the easiest process by which they could be interdicted (in vehicles at the ports of entry) raises the same sort of skepticism in my mind that I have when I'm told that law enforcement has identified the person responsible for a long unsolved crime, but that the person is dead. In both instances, the answer seems like an easy out. We know what we know, but do we really know what we don't know?

Even accepting the discrepancies between drug seizures along the border and at the ports of entry as reflective of the actual flow of illicit narcotics into the United States, respectfully, that is how it should be, and is a fact that should be encouraged. I will be the first to admit that we do not know how many persons, or vehicles for that matter, cross the border between the ports of entry, because Border Patrol can only estimate the number of persons and vehicles that it does not see or seize. That said, we want to push drug smugglers to the ports of entry, because, as noted, the capability to identify and to seize drugs at the ports (where we know exactly how many persons and vehicles enter) is higher. Given the profits involved, and the sophistication of the organizations that engage in illicit drug trafficking, no cartel or individual smuggler is going to come upon a fence and decide that it will not be moving its drugs to the United States. Instead, faced with such obstacles, it will opt to take the riskier route through the ports, where the likelihood of apprehension is higher. Good.

Returning to Gawthorpe:

What about the terrorists who imperil America's security by sneaking in through Mexico? The wall won't help with that problem either, because it's a problem that doesn't exist outside of the fevered imaginings of administration officials and conservative talking heads. There is no known case of a terrorist having crossed the southern border. The main terrorist threat facing the US today comes from homegrown extremists. A border wall won't do anything to help with that, either.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Take it from my colleague Todd Bensman. While he may not be a University Lecturer at Leiden University in the Netherlands (or "a scholar of military, strategic and diplomatic affairs from 1945 to the present, with a particular focus on the United States"), he did spend nine years at the:

Texas Department of Public Safety's Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, where he managed teams of intelligence analysts that worked in concert with federal homeland security and U.S. Intelligence Community agencies to identify and mitigate terrorism threats. From the State of Texas fusion center for nine years, he designed and directed collection operations that fed into the Intelligence Community and prompted or advanced federal counterterrorism investigations. Among his original programs was a specialized effort to help federal partners disrupt human smuggling networks transporting migrants to the U.S. land border from countries where Islamist terrorist organizations are active.

As Bensman explained:

From intelligence community sources with access to protected government information, the Center for Immigration Studies has learned that at least 100 migrants from "countries of interest", encountered between 2012 and 2017 at or en route to the southern border, matched the U.S. terrorism "watch lists" known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), or the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB). The number of such law enforcement land border encounters with such watch-listed migrants has risen drastically each year after 2012, according to the information, which is deemed credible but could not be independently corroborated.

Or how about Abdulahi Hasan Sharif? As I stated in an October 2017 post:

Press reports state that in downtown Edmonton on Saturday, September 30, 2017, Somali national ... Sharif, who had been granted refugee status in Canada, "attacked an officer and ran down [four] pedestrians with a truck." It was also reported that Sharif had been "investigated two years earlier for espousing extremist views and was found to have an Islamic State flag in his car."

Sharif got to Canada in an unusual manner. According to the CBC, he "walked into the United States" from Mexico at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on July 12, 2011, with "no documents and no right to be there. Almost immediately, he was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement" (ICE).

Thereafter, CBC explained, "on September 22, 2011, an immigration judge ordered Sharif removed to Somalia," a decision from which he purportedly waived appeal. Rather than being removed, the network reported, Sharif was released from ICE custody in January 2012. That report continues:

Canadian officials have confirmed that Sharif arrived in this country at an official port of entry in 2012. He went through the "regular process" and was granted refugee status later that year, the government said.

There has been no confirmation that Sharif came to the United States through the credible fear process, but if this reporting is correct, there is no other way that an alien without a visa would have been allowed into the United States at a port of entry, taken into custody, and sent before an immigration judge. CBC's description of Sharif's case tracks the expedited removal/credible fear/asylum process set forth in section 235(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

But wait, you might argue, Sharif entered through the port of San Ysidro, not illegally. True, but if he had been rejected at the port (as I argue he should have been), do you really think he would have turned around and gone back to Somalia?

Besides, I assume that Gawthorpe defines "terrorist" as a person who kills Americans. But that is not how the INA defines engaging in "terrorist activity", nor should it. Section 212(a)(3)(B)(iv) of the INA states:

As used in this chapter, the term "engage in terrorist activity" means, in an individual capacity or as a member of an organization—

(I) to commit or to incite to commit, under circumstances indicating an intention to cause death or serious bodily injury, a terrorist activity;

(II) to prepare or plan a terrorist activity;

(III) to gather information on potential targets for terrorist activity;

(IV) to solicit funds or other things of value for—

(aa) a terrorist activity;

(bb) a terrorist organization described in clause (vi)(I) or (vi)(II); or

(cc) a terrorist organization described in clause (vi)(III), unless the solicitor can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that he did not know, and should not reasonably have known, that the organization was a terrorist organization;

(V) to solicit any individual—

(aa) to engage in conduct otherwise described in this subsection;

(bb) for membership in a terrorist organization described in clause (vi)(I) or (vi)(II); or

(cc) for membership in a terrorist organization described in clause (vi)(III) unless the solicitor can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that he did not know, and should not reasonably have known, that the organization was a terrorist organization; or

(VI) to commit an act that the actor knows, or reasonably should know, affords material support, including a safe house, transportation, communications, funds, transfer of funds or other material financial benefit, false documentation or identification, weapons (including chemical, biological, or radiological weapons), explosives, or training—

(aa) for the commission of a terrorist activity;

(bb) to any individual who the actor knows, or reasonably should know, has committed or plans to commit a terrorist activity;

(cc) to a terrorist organization described in subclause (I) or (II) of clause (vi) or to any member of such an organization; or

(dd) to a terrorist organization described in clause (vi)(III), or to any member of such an organization, unless the actor can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the actor did not know, and should not reasonably have known, that the organization was a terrorist organization.

Money and recruits are the lifeblood of terrorist organizations. I love my country, but there is no moral or legal difference between killing an American in the United States or killing a foreign national abroad, and no moral or legal difference between recruiting someone to kill an American in the United States or a foreign national abroad, and no moral or legal difference between soliciting funds or providing material support to kill an American in the United States or a foreign national abroad. I assume that someone who teaches in the Netherlands would agree with that assessment, as well.

As Gawthorpe concludes:

Regardless – perhaps because – of its lack of any practical worth, Trump supporters value the wall as a symbol of American sovereignty and strength. Rightwing commentators such as Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson are fond of invoking Israel's border wall as an example of what they want for America: proud ramparts of freedom standing against the chaos and terror without.

But an erroneous way of viewing the border is embedded in this way of thinking. It is a mistake to view the border purely as a source of threat, rather than the place where the US can become stronger through its interaction with the outside world. Honoring its legal and moral obligations to refugees allows the US to demonstrate its commitment to its highest ideals to the world. Cross-border trade strengthens the American economy and regional peace. A liberal visa system enriches America economically and culturally.

At root, the fantasy of the wall is a nightmare about the need for separation: that what is on the inside is good and what is on the outside is bad. But America's highest ideals have always been about creating a mixture of the inside and the outside which is greater than the sum of its parts. Keeping that tradition alive means keeping alive a way of viewing the border that sees it as representing much more of an opportunity than it does a threat. It means, first and foremost, tearing down the idea behind this wall.

Much of this is just pap, and not worth commenting on. That said, few seriously dispute the second paragraph after the introductory sentence. The president doesn't. Arguably, he could just shut down the border under section 215 of the INA (or try to) if he did. He hasn't. And remember: "America proudly welcomes millions of lawful immigrants who enrich our society and contribute to our nation"?

I agree that a well-defended and secure border through which lawful commerce passes presents more opportunities than threats. We just need to get to that point, and barriers where they are needed are a crucial part of that.

Two other points that have been filling up my Facebook feed of late.

The first is an NBC News article captioned "Test of steel prototype for border wall showed it could be sawed through". The implication of the posters has been that a wall is worthless because it could be, well, sawed through.

Unfortunately, the article does not identify the "common industrial tool" referenced in the subheader ("A photo shows that the steel columns were breached with a common industrial tool"), except to identify it as a "saw". No saw in my garage could make the kind of cut revealed in the photos that are included in that article. In fact, I can imagine that last month in millions of American garages, millions of Americans struggled with a back saw (or worse, a hacksaw) to cut the bottom off of the trunks of their Christmas trees. Now imagine cutting through steel and concrete in the hot desert sun. No thanks.

The most critical information in that article, unfortunately, is buried well within it. That is a quote from DHS Spokeswoman Katie Waldman:

"The professionals on the border know that a wall system is intended not only to prevent entry, it is intended to defer and to increase the amount of time and effort it takes for one to enter so that we can respond with limited border patrol agents. Even a wall that is being breached is a valuable tool in that it allows us to respond to the attempted illegal entry."

This is an essential fact that remarkably is lost in this entire debate. The purpose of a wall is not to prevent entry; instead, it is to deter entry, and to delay the entry of anyone who attempts to breach it. There are 18,600 Border Patrol agents, total, along the Southwest border, as I noted in a July 2018 post. I continued:

While this is almost 10 agents per mile, 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.

A wall is a force multiplier for those agents. Sensors alert the agents to the spot of the incursion, so that they can respond to the poor soul standing there trying to cut through a bollard with a rip cut saw, if that is what the skeptic sees in his or her imagination, or an arc welder, or whatever. More agents can patrol more border more effectively where there are barriers.

The other is another NBC News article captioned "Trump claims walls work, but the discovery of border tunnels says otherwise". That article states:

In a tweet Wednesday, Trump pointed to Europe while insisting border walls "have all been recognized as close to 100% successful," even after the president was told by a Border Patrol agent while in Texas last week about the recent discovery of two drug-smuggling tunnels beneath the border there.

Wait — I thought that the DEA said that drugs go through the ports of entry?

The NBC article continues: "Also last week, Mexican federal police posted a tweet about the discovery of a smuggling tunnel under the state of Sonora's border with Arizona."

Good. Digging tunnels is expensive, difficult work. If a smuggler (drug-, alien-, or otherwise) has to dig a tunnel because there's a wall, that is good for border security because it increases the cost of entry. It also makes it more likely that the smuggling scheme will be uncovered: Remember, the NBC News article talks about tunnels that were discovered by the authorities. Duh.

Topics: Border Wall