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By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
Early on in the recent government shutdown, the Trump administration batted about the potential for declaring a national emergency at the Southwest border. This would free up Department of Defense and other government funding to construct additional sections of border fencing and bypass opposition in Congress. However, while this may appease Trump’s voter base in the short term, it would do nothing to hasten construction of his promised border wall any time soon.
Presidential Declaration Draft
CNN obtained internal documents from the White House and was able to review a draft of a presidential proclamation. It read, “The massive amount of aliens who unlawfully enter the United States each day is a direct threat to the safety and security of our nation and constitutes a national emergency.” Trump claimed the authority of the National Emergencies Act in order to issue this proclamation. According to CNN, the administration could pull $681 million from the Treasury, $3.6 billion from the military, $3 billion in Pentagon civil works funds, and $200 million from DHS. There was no indication of why his request increased by $1.3 billion from the $5.7 billion he has been demanding from Congress for the past several months.
Trump claims he is justified in declaring this national emergency to fund his border wall by saying that most Americans support this demand and that the Southwest border is in crisis. However, according to the Pew Research Center, just one year ago, 60 percent of Americans said they opposed Trump’s wall expansion proposal. In December 2018, a Quinnipiac poll found that 54 percent of respondents oppose the border wall, and a separate Harvard online survey found that 56 percent of those surveyed did not support a border wall. Only 35 percent of those surveyed supported including money for the wall in a federal spending bill, according to a Reuters poll conducted in late December 2018.
Most Illegal Entrants Arrive By Air or By Sea
Border patrol apprehension numbers also do not support the claim that there is an ongoing emergency at the Southwest border. In 2000, agents apprehended 1.6 million illegal border crossers. In fiscal year 2017, only 304,000 illegal border crossers were apprehended, and 13 percent of those claimed credible fear of returning to their home country. However, also in fiscal year 2017, more than 607,000 people who entered the U.S. legally by air or sea, not land, overstayed their visas and remained in the country illegally at the end of the year, according to DHS. In fiscal year 2018, agents apprehended approximately 400,000 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border — the fifth lowest total since 1973. The number of adult migrants traveling without families was the second lowest total since 1970.
Terrorism, while always of concern to national security, is not considered a major border security threat. According to the research and advocacy organization WOLA, on January 4, the White House claimed that approximately 3,700 known or suspected terrorists were prevented from traveling to or entering the U.S by DHS. What the White House failed to mention – and what DHS finally acknowledged – is that most of those individuals try to enter the US by air. Further, the State Department indicated in its July 2017 annual report that, “at year’s end there was no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States.”
The current cross-border drug trafficking picture also does not indicate a national emergency that would be mitigated by a border wall. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment, the most common method employed by transnational criminal organizations involves transporting illicit drugs through U.S. ports of entry in passenger vehicles with concealed compartments or co-mingled with legitimate goods on tractor-trailers. Large quantities of marijuana, also known as “brick weed” because of the way it is packaged, comprises the vast majority of illegal drugs trafficked across the border between ports of entry. The quantity of marijuana seized by Border Patrol agents in fiscal year 2018 is the lowest since 2013, most likely because drug cartels are shifting to heroin and methamphetamine as more profitable products.
Trump’s Border Wall Political Points
It’s difficult to believe that by declaring a national emergency, Trump’s true intention is to actually begin construction on a border wall any time soon. The administration has acknowledged the likelihood of lawsuits if they move forward with acquiring private property, which is an essential aspect of building additional sections of border fencing. The draft document also notes that environmental reviews can be skipped and DHS can use waivers to bypass contracting laws, per CNN. The combination of all of these things virtually guarantee a significant delay in border wall construction, which goes against the nature of a national emergency that would typically need to be addressed immediately.
However, Trump would win political points by declaring a national emergency. It would appease his base by demonstrating his authority and ability to work around Congress to fulfill his biggest campaign promise. If and when the lawsuits come and the border wall is not funded or built, Trump can blame others and say that he never backed down from Congress. It is clear that the border wall has become a symbol of Trump’s presidency.
In August 2017, the Washington Post published leaked transcripts from a private phone call between Trump and Mexico’s then-president, Enrique Peña Nieto. During that phone call, Trump told Peña Nieto that he had to stop publicly saying that Mexico would not pay for the wall because it was making Trump look bad. Trump then stated, “I am just going to say that we are working it out.” He continued, “Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important.” This conversation further adds to the presumption that the administration does not truly believe this is a national emergency, but rather a political strategy.