True to form, top congressional appropriators found a way to cut a deal on border security issues Monday night, opening a path to a fully funded, functioning federal government for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year.
Now, if only President Donald Trump will take it. He may be tempted to say no, but he has better reasons to say yes.
By including no money for a new border wall, and even less money for border fencing than the Senate had proposed in December, the negotiators sent an obvious but still somehow necessary message to Trump: Elections matter. The president had made the midterm elections a referendum on border security, and the GOP lost the House. So Republicans don’t have nearly as much leverage over the issue as they used to.
Trump told reporters Tuesday morning that he was “not happy” about the deal, adding that he would meet with other administration officials later in the day to decide how to respond. He could obviously reject it, which would almost certainly force another partial government shutdown.
The last shutdown clearly damaged Trump’s standing with most Americans, driving down his already weak approval ratings. But Trump may be tempted to take another run at forcing Democrats to cough up some money for his wall because he may finally have found a message on border security that works, at least in the context of his bid for reelection next year, and another shutdown would give him the opportunity to keep beating that drum.
A Trump theme for 2020 is that the Democratic Party has been taken over by extremists who want to open the border, disband Immigration and Customs Enforcement and unleash dangerous criminals on unsuspecting Americans. And yes, there are some on the left who have called for disbanding ICE and who oppose almost all deportations. But that’s cherry-picking, not unlike calling the GOP the party of zero reproductive rights because there are some Republican lawmakers who oppose abortion in any and all circumstances.
Unfortunately for Democrats, their negotiators from the House Appropriations Committee made a demand that was easy for Trump to caricature as an attack on border security.
The House conferees proposed a tough cap on ICE detentions in the interior of the United States - that is, away from the border. The point, as Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey) explained in an interview, is to force ICE to shift its focus back to violent criminals in the country illegally. “Right now, ICE is just indiscriminately going out and rounding up not just criminals, but mom and dads heading to church, taking their kids to school,” she said.
The detainees Roybal-Allard characterizes as moms and dads, however, the administration paints as MS-13 gang-bangers. In a briefing Monday, ICE Deputy Director Matt Albence said, “If we are forced to live within a cap based on interior arrests, we will immediately be forced to release criminal aliens that are currently sitting in our custody. We’ll be releasing gang members. We’ll be releasing individuals convicted of . domestic violence and drug crimes.”
That’s a powerful image, even though it seems to be anchored in a mischaracterization of who detainees are. ICE’s statistics show that the agency removed 256,000 people in fiscal 2018 who had been ordered deported, 57 percent of whom were “convicted criminals.” But it did not break down what those convictions represented. Customs and Border Patrol did offer a breakdown of the convictions obtained for the nearly 6,300 people it arrested in the first 11 months of fiscal 2018, and more than half of them were convicted simply of entering or reentering the country illegally. Less than one-sixth of the arrests were for violent crimes or weapons-related charges.
Only ICE knows for sure the sort of folks who would be released if detentions were capped, and ICE is insisting that the results would be a horror show. That assertion fits into Trump’s Democrats-as-extremists meme.
On the other hand, here are two reasons Trump would be better off taking the deal.
For starters, he simply doesn’t have the votes to get more money for his wall. Since Democrats won the House, the offers from Congress have been getting worse, not better; a bipartisan proposal in December would have provided $1.6 billion for 65 miles of new fencing, compared with less than $1.4 billion for 55 miles of fencing in the current proposal.
Second, given that most Americans oppose Trump’s border wall, the president is mainly interested in scoring points with his base - the group that may be hard-pressed to accept anything less. The surest way to deliver that prize is for Trump to circumvent Congress by declaring a national emergency and shifting funds to the wall from some other project that was previously funded.
That may very well prove to be illegal, and even if it isn’t, it would set a horrible precedent. But it’s a safer bet for Trump than forcing another shutdown that would hurt his standing even more, with little or no likelihood of congressional Democrats caving on the wall.
Jon Healy wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times.