The 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once observed that “If you like laws and sausages you should never watch either one being made.”
Well, there was sausage making in the Oval Office this week and it wasn’t pretty.
It was a generally unedifying exchange between politicians who lacked wit, deftness and eloquence but were adept at posturing for their bases. Unedifying except in one sense: Democrats showed once again that they lack a border security policy — seem even reluctant to talk about the subject in any detail.
On Tuesday, President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE, House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Sunday shows preview: Pelosi announces date for infrastructure vote; administration defends immigration policies GOP should grab the chance to upend Pelosi's plan on reconciliation MORE (D-Calif.), and Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats press Schumer on removing Confederate statues from Capitol Democrats' do-or-die moment Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan MORE (D-N.Y.) met to discuss spending bills necessary to fund the government, specifically, whether to include $5 billion for a border wall. Vice-President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence says he hopes conservative majority on Supreme Court will restrict abortion access Federal judge to hear case of Proud Boy alleged Jan. 6 rioter seeking release from jail The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit MORE was also there but successfully camouflaged himself in the upholstery.
Trump asserted that, if he didn’t get funds for a wall, he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security.” The Democrats helpfully reminded Trump of “the whole lot of ‘Pinocchio’s’” that The Washington Post had just given him for making false claims about the wall.
The best Democratic leaders could do in the Oval Office meeting was to assert a mantra that “we are going to have border security” without explaining just what exactly that security would look like and why it would be more effective than a wall.
After the meeting, Pelosi derided Trump's wall proposal as nothing but “manhood thing" for the president. But agree with him or not, Trump at least has a clear, sound-bite sized border security policy. It’s easy to grasp and understand because walls are simple — they keep out people who appear threatening.
The Democrats have an amazing blind spot when it comes to immigration. They appear not to appreciate that popular support for legal immigration, and for issues dear to them such as permanent status for the Dreamers, depends on convincing Americans that their borders and immigration are under control.
A study by Allison Harell of the University of Quebec and others found that an important predictor of attitudes to migrants was whether people felt in control of their lives, including that their country had control over immigration. “Feeling in control,” the study asserted, “makes it psychologically easier for people to deal with the changing social landscape in their environment because they feel capable of responding to these changes.”
Yet, the Democrats have ceded border security to Trump. The best example is the recent ill-fated “Abolish ICE” campaign by progressives in Congress and immigration advocates. They quickly retreated after Trump started bashing Democrats as “open border” believers.
Democrats don’t have to support the wall to prove their border security bona fides. One approach might be to adopt a variant of then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTop nuclear policy appointee removed from Pentagon post: report Prosecutors face legal challenges over obstruction charge in Capitol riot cases Biden makes early gains eroding Trump's environmental legacy MORE’s criticism of the Iraq War, which was that he wasn’t against all wars, just “dumb ones.” That the wall is dumb is easy to demonstrate, not least because no one knows whether it will be effective and how much it will cost.
But not all walls are dumb, especially in the right place such as urban areas and in combination with other effective measures. Walls, technological upgrades and additional personnel put in place in San Diego, long before Trump was elected, reduced apprehensions of illegal immigrants from half a million a quarter century ago to 32,000 in 2016.
Democrats certainly should be talking about the Dreamers, ending family separation and a humane asylum policy. At the same time, they should be proposing effective immigration law enforcement measures such as better technology, more border personnel, more immigration judges, more effective tracking of visa overstays and efficient deportations of illegal immigrants convicted of crimes. In short, the Democrats’ border security policy should be to build “smart barriers” and not “dumb” walls.
Such an approach, in fact, is pro-immigration because it will build support for lawful immigration and for much-needed reforms.
Until Democrats grasp that promoting border security and enforcement of the immigration laws is necessary to keep immigration part of the American fabric, they will go on ceding border security to Trump.
Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.