A missed opportunity for Democrats in the border wall showdown

This week's Oval Office sparring between President TrumpDonald TrumpIran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries Pardon-seekers have paid Trump allies tens of thousands to lobby president: NYT MORE and Democratic congressional leaders, over border wall funding and the possibility of a government shutdown, made for great political theater. In reality, both sides got what they wanted. Trump got a get-tough photo op that can be replayed on Fox & Friends, while House and Senate Minority Leaders Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCowboys for Trump founder arrested following Capitol riot Retired Army general: 'We can't have demonstrators showing up at a state Capitol with damn long guns' Graham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump MORE (D-Calif.) and Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerCowboys for Trump founder arrested following Capitol riot Graham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump Biden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs MORE (D-N.Y.) got Trump to own the shutdown.

But are their positions so far apart? Trump wants his wall, or at least the simulacra of a wall. The Democratic leadership wants the status quo. Both positions are untenable.


As Trump descends into what the Washington Post called a "bottomless Pinocchio" of falsehoods about the border wall, Pelosi and Schumer are missing a key opportunity to launch a broader critique of immigration and border policies. The moment is auspicious for such a critique, and not just because of the Democrats' electoral gains. The brutal public displays of Trump's border crackdown, including tear-gassing children last month at the San Ysidro port of entry, have exposed the destructive failings of our border strategies, failings that were decades in the making.

The immediate issue is the federal budget deadline of December 21. Trump wants $5 billion in revenue for his wall, but he doesn't have the votes to overcome a Senate filibuster. Democrats are offering $1.6 billion in additional funding for "border security," which includes enhancing and extending the border wall that already exists (although not the concrete buffer Trump wants). Viewed within the context of the entire federal budget, and the nearly $4 billion a year already spent on border security, there is not a lot of daylight between these two proposals.    

Trump is half right when he asserts that border wall construction continues apace. More than 700 miles of border barriers exist, including bollard-style steel walls, double chain-linked fences, barbed wire, infrared cameras and drones, guard stations and light poles. Much of this was constructed under President Obama. Trump has been putting into place plans to extend the barriers.

In July 2018, more than 2,500 scientists in the United States and Mexico signed a letter decrying the waiver of federal and state environmental laws to build the wall, saying this "threatens more than a century of binational investment in conservation." Current plans to make way for the wall include demolishing the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. 

Trump's real victory in Tuesday's meeting was to get Pelosi and Schumer to repeat the mantra of "border security."

Pelosi (to Trump) "I'm with you. I'm with you. We are going to have border security."

Trump: "We need border security. I think we all agree that we need border security. Is that right?

Schumer: "Yes, we do. We do."  

When Schumer advocates continuing the status quo in the name of an ill-defined notion of "border security," it reinforces two false and damaging framings of the border and immigration. The first is what researcher and former Border Patrol agent Chris Montoya calls the "border threat narrative," the spurious idea of the southern border as a place of danger. The second is the failed doctrine of "prevention through deterrence," a strategy to obstruct undocumented immigration begun in the 1990s by President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe challenge of Biden's first days: staying focused and on message Why the Senate should not rush an impeachment trial Revising the pardon power — let the Speaker and Congress have voices MORE and continued by George W. Bush, Obama and now Trump.

Montoya poured over Border Patrol and other law enforcement data to conclude that Border Patrol agents enjoy one of the safest law enforcement jobs in America. The number of Border Patrol agents has increased 500 percent since 2000, even while undocumented immigration across the southern border is at a 40-year low.

The true danger, asserts Montoya, lies in the "idea of a dangerous and violent border." This idea, based on skewed data and hyperbole, moves public discourse about the U.S.-Mexico border and the alleged threat it poses, leading to bad policy. 

The policy of "prevention by deterrence" goes back to the Clinton-era Border Patrol strategy to seal off urban entry points, thereby using the harsh Arizona desert as a weapon against migration. Subsequent administrations continued this strategy and added different components, such as deporting people to unfamiliar cities, family detention, and most recently, family separation. But decades of research, from the University of Arizona and elsewhere, shows that ratcheting up punishment against migrants as a form of deterrence doesn't stop migration. It simply redirects it.

The current decline in unauthorized immigration across the U.S. southern border is mostly a reflection of declining rates of Mexican immigration (which, in turn, is related to changing economic and demographic conditions in Mexico). Yet, deaths in the desert have continued at high rates, as migrants, mostly Central Americans now, follow the more treacherous routes. At least 7,000 people have perished in the border desert since 2000, most from heat exposure and dehydration.

Despite the border crisis narrative pushed in Washington, here on the border one finds a different perspective. As southern Arizona business leader Jaime Chamberlain told Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenRosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' House Republican condemns anti-Trump celebrities during impeachment hearing Acting DHS chief Chad Wolf stepping down MORE during her visit to the border last May, “It’s very sexy and grabs headlines to talk about border security. But when people talk to me about border security, I live in a very safe community in Nogales,” adding that the concerns of local businesses are focused more on how to increase cross-border trade and communication.

Rather than repeat the mantra of "border security," we need a deeper national conversation about our border policies. In addition to humane asylum policies, we need progress on comprehensive immigration reform. We also need to de-escalate the decades-long border militarization that harms communities and ecosystems and reinforces a false narrative of border danger. Not all of this can be achieved in the current political context. But top Democrats like Pelosi and Schumer aren't trying hard enough to articulate a different vision for the border. They could start by listening to the concerns of border communities.

Elizabeth Oglesby is an associate professor of Latin American Studies and Geography at the University of Arizona. She is co-editor of "The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics" and "Guatemala: The Question of Genocide."