Trump's 'Operation Hold the Line' on the Border Wall

Setting an early tone with a new Congress

By Andrew R. Arthur on January 4, 2019

In recent weeks, the public and press have largely been focused on a government shutdown over border security: Whether one would occur, how long it would last, and what the result would be. In fact, in the past day, both my physical therapist and my financial advisor have talked to me about it. A big part of the issue really comes down to how low the stakes are, given the prior consensus on border barriers and the (relatively) small amount of money that the president is seeking, as I detailed in a December 2018 post. The more I think about it (and get asked about it), however, the bigger I realize the stakes are: how much immigration enforcement the Democratic House will fund, and therefore how much they will allow President Trump to enforce the immigration laws already on the books.

If you understand the immigration laws of the United States, you understand how ridiculous this statement is to begin with. After all, Congress writes the immigration laws, and the president only executes them. Logically, the institutionalists in Congress would want to protect that branch's authority and prerogatives. Except, I am not sure that there are many (if any) institutionalists left in either the House or the Senate.

It was not always so. During my first period of service on the Hill, there were any number of institutionalists — members who, while still loyal to their parties, would still draw a line in the sand to defend the authority of the House or Senate. Two, in particular, come to mind: Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Either would have defended vigorously the laws that they helped write in the face of any executive-branch intransigence.

Further, the 116th Congress consists of any number of members who do not want critical provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act enforced at all, and/or who stood by silently as former President Obama executed the law only as he saw fit.

Which brings us back to the wall, and funding for it. As I noted in my December post, "all revenue measures originate in the House, and the House traditionally has insisted that this prerogative extends to appropriations as well as tax measures." Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) will likely be the chairwoman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security Subcommittee, and will hold the purse strings on immigration-enforcement funding.

Her website links to her "Floor Speech Opposing Funds for a Border Wall in the Continuing Resolution". It includes the following:

The fact is that there are serious homeland security vulnerabilities that will not be addressed if the president is allowed to squander $5.7 billion on a border wall. This includes not being able to hire more law enforcement agents to focus on opioid, gang, trade, and child exploitation investigations. No funding to recapitalize the Coast Guard's air and sea fleets, including the procurement of our first heavy icebreaker since the 1970s. As the Arctic ice recedes, Russia, China and other countries are winning the race to lay claim to the vast resources of that region, where at times there is no U.S. presence. There will be no funding to hire additional customs officers to intercept illicit drugs and other contraband, almost all of which comes into our country through the ports of entry. And, Mr. Chairman there will no increased funding for first responder grants to help states and localities better prepare and respond to terrorism and disasters of every kind.

Did you notice what was missing? Any reference to immigration enforcement at all. Not that this is a surprise. Under "Immigration" on her website is the following:

With an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and a range of industries heavily dependent on their services, our immigration challenges cannot be solved through tougher enforcement measures alone. We need a common-sense solution — one that provides a pathway to legalization for those already in this country, and a sensible guest worker program for those seeking to come here. Under the comprehensive immigration reform proposals I support, immigrants who undergo a rigorous background check, learn English, pay any back taxes they owe, and demonstrate strong moral character would eventually be eligible to earn the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship.

Although she pays lip service to "tougher enforcement measures alone", that page does not identify any "tougher enforcement measures" that she actually supports. Even more revealing is her press release "Rep. Roybal-Allard on Trump Administration Immigration Principles", in which she stated:

The Trump Administration's immigration principles are outrageous and do not reflect America's values. These principles are an insult to the majority of the American people who support protecting our Dreamers, and they are a gift to anti-immigrant hard-liners. Our moral obligation is to protect Dreamers, not to build an unnecessary wall, tear families apart, or push other draconian immigration policies. If the president is serious about protecting America's Dreamers, he should not be using them as political pawns in his quest to turn America away from its history as a nation of immigrants who have helped to make our country the greatest in the world.

To be clear: I do not see her voluntarily appropriating additional funds for ICE detention beds, or Enforcement Removal Agents.

That is why the president's current posture on funding for a border wall has become a marker for what he will, or will not, accept as it relates to funding for immigration enforcement. Anyone who has read my posts on the subject, or heard me interviewed about it, knows that a wall (or a barrier of any sort) is not as important to stemming the flow of illegal immigration as closing the loopholes that encourage foreign nationals to seek illegal entry into the United States, particularly by using their children as pawns in that effort.

That said, barriers are needed where barriers are needed to slow the entry of drugs and alien smugglers into the United States, and thereby act as a force-multiplier for our still under-resourced Border Patrol. Simply put, the longer that it takes smugglers to bring their illicit loads of people, drugs, or other contraband into the United States, the more effectively Border Patrol agents can respond, and that is what barriers do — delay entry, even if they don't stop it entirely.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website includes a history of border enforcement. In particular, it talks about "Operation Hold the Line," and its progeny:

In an effort to bring a level of control to the border, Operation "Hold the Line" was established in 1993 in El Paso, and proved an immediate success. Agents and technology were concentrated in specific areas, providing a "show of force" to potential illegal border crossers. The drastic reduction in apprehensions prompted the Border Patrol to undertake a full-scale effort in San Diego, California, which accounted for more than half of illegal entries. Operation "Gatekeeper" was implemented in 1994, and reduced illegal entries in San Diego by more than 75% over the next few years.

The president is running his own "Operation Hold the Line" in the ongoing budget talks. If the president can hold the line on his demands for a down payment on border barriers, there is likely to be more consensus between the White House and the House of Representatives on immigration legislation, and in particular immigration funding, in the 116th Congress.

If he shows weakness in this effort, however, Democrats in the House will cut immigration funding to starve immigration enforcement, prompting conservatives and others concerned about national security and crime to clamor for a tougher immigration stance by the White House. If this happens, particularly with the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, there will likely be more government shutdowns in the next two years, ones that could last indefinitely.