The U.S. government shutdown extends into its third week as the political stalemate drags on. Both sides have been staunch in their positions, seemingly not wanting to budge one iota from their declared stances.
Because the current schism is centered around the hot-button issue of immigration, it is easy to get lost in the ideological mongering of either side. What has been at least a partial relief during this whole process has been the tendency within the media to address the topic from a “fact-check” perspective.
Why this eruption of objectivity in the midst of what is usually a hail storm of ideological ranting? It seems that the news industry has been somewhat forced into taking this route.
Facing the Music
For long, Republicans have been warning of a building crisis due to failings in border security. Over time, the nature of this crisis has become more and more clear. The image has shifted from abstract statistics on numbers of illegal aliens entering the country, capitalizing on American social and other infrastructural services, etc., to clear and visible disarray at the southern border. The first event in this “narrative adjustment” were the reports of child-parent separation by border authorities over the past summer. This news was at first taken by Trump critics and open border advocates as ammunition against the president. Gradually, however, it came to be understood that the detentions were far from an indictment of a particular administration policy. Rather, they were simply the latest portrayals of how serious the problem of illegal immigration had become, necessitating action they often forced government personnel to take. The migrant caravans that began heading toward the United States in late 2018 (more of which continue to coalesce even now) was the next step in hammering home just how desperate the situation has become. The most recent installment in this trend took place earlier this week, when the president delivered a televised Oval Office address on the situation at the southern border. For nine minutes the president laid out a series of factual assertions. These facts described the full scope of the challenge of illegal immigration, from what border agents deal with on a daily basis, to the strengthening of drug smuggling due to the porous border.
From any reasonable objective point of view, the picture the president painted looked bad. The thought of hundreds of thousands of criminals being arrested by federal agents annually and the scores of deaths directly caused by contraband narcotics simply does not sit well with most people. Alas, the gradual solidifiying picture of just how serious the border crisis is has forced even outlets with a clear bias against the president to take a serious look at Trump’s claims.
When looking over Trump’s address, there are three main points the president was trying to get across.
The first was size and volume. Trump claimed that in the last two years, ICE officers made hundreds of thousands of arrests, 266,000 of which were of those with criminal records. According to Trump, those crimes included some 100,000 assaults, 30,000 sex crimes, and 4,000 murders. One data point Trump chose to highlight was the numbers regarding children. In the month of December alone, 20,000 minors were illegally brought into the United States; Trump added the obvious deduction that these children “are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs” for business purposes or as part of their own attempts to enter the country. CBS News conceded that Trump’s numbers were “probably true” and even backed up the claim with a bit of their own research.
The second topic was the scourge of illegal narcotics being brought into the U.S. via Mexico. The president’s claim, one backed up by data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), was that every week, 300 Americans die from illegal opioids and heroin alone, 90 percent of which comes into the country through the southern border. Putting things into context, the president threw out another chilling statistic: current trends prevailing, more Americans will die from drugs this year than were killed in the entire Vietnam War. Translated into actual numbers, that means over 70,000 deaths due to drug overdose (according to the CDCP) compared to the 58,200 servicemen killed in Vietnam.
Finally, and probably most important, Trump spoke about the unbearable burden currently on the shoulders of federal agencies. Resource-wise, Homeland Security (DHS) is at a loss on how to handle the current challenge. Officials made requests for everything from more agents and immigration judges, to more bed space and medical support. Indeed over the recent period, DHS has been adamant that the status quo is untenable, and that a border wall will work to improve the situation.
It is worth noting that these basic points are not refutable. Even in the Schumer-Pelosi response to the president, despite the two Democrat leaders opening with the promise to present “the facts,” no counter-argument for a wall was made. Speaker Pelosi sufficed with referring to a potential border-long barrier as “unnecessary.” Instead, she advocated for more “technology” and constructing “better infrastructure” at ports of entry. Is this suggestion logical in any way? Basic common sense would dictate that no system or technology to manage entry into a country can be more effective than a physical barrier. Their rebuttal actually revealed the root of the “anti-wall” position to be mostly ideological. Senator Schumer said at the end of his segment that the symbol of the United State should be “the Statue of Liberty” and not a “thirty foot wall.” Lacking a coherent argument against a wall from a practical perspective, the values argument has been echoed throughout the media establishment (see one stark example here).
The single attack on Trump’s position with any weight has been not on the necessity of a wall, but rather regarding his manipulation of government affairs in order to get his way. On 12 January, the current shutdown entered its twenty-second day, making it the longest in federal government history. As Schumer and Pelosi stated in no uncertain terms, Trump is holding the government “hostage” along with “millions of innocent” Americans over the border-wall issue. To give them their due, the senator and congresswoman are absolutely right on that one. The president himself was rather forthright on this point. Trump states in his address that “the federal government remains shut down for one reason and one reason only: because Democrats will not fund border security.”
The ‘Emergency Option’
The counter-argument to this charge, at least from Trump’s perspective, is that the situation at the border is critical and requires an immediate solution. Separating the government shutdown from the wall (as Pelosi and Schumer demanded) would leave the administration without leverage on an issue that cannot go unaddressed any longer.
Trump has hinted at the “nuclear option” of declaring a national emergency in response to what’s taking place at the Mexico-U.S. border, a move that would allow him to simply bypass Congress. Recently, senior GOP Senator Lindsey Graham openly advocated for this. According to Graham, Democrats’ “refusal to negotiate on funding for a border wall/barrier —even if the government were to be reopened— virtually ends the congressional path to funding for a border wall/barrier.” In his statement, Graham concluded that “it is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier.” While Trump has recently backed off from declaring the “emergency option,” he has not unequivocally ruled it out. An additional migrant caravan, set to depart from Honduras on 15 January, could provide the impetus (and justification) for Trump to resort to his executive powers.
For the time being, there is no end in sight for the current shutdown, with both sides sticking to their guns. The way in which the U.S. Congress resolves this upheaval will almost certainly be a watershed event in shaping America’s approach to immigration.