Democrats Should Cut a Border Deal With Trump

Why not throw a little money at security if it gets protection for the dreamers?

That's a lot of border.

Photographer: Mario Vazquez/AFP/Getty Images

"We have to get massive border security," President Donald Trump declared 10 days ago.

There has to be "100 percent operational control" of America's border with Mexico, Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, likes to say.

This is good stuff for the conservative base, evoking the specter of hordes of lowlife immigrants storming across the border and threatening U.S. security and jobs. Fear of immigrants has been Trump's political calling card and a favorite theme of many Republicans.

Now some Democrats are supporting increases in border-control spending even as they continue to reject scare scenarios, as a trade-off for changes in immigration laws. Specifically they're hoping for legislation allowing immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children to remain in the country, the undocumented residents known as "dreamers."

QuickTake Immigration Reform

That may be a desirable deal. And there are security and other improvements that can be made along the southern border. 

But there's no border-security crisis. Illegal border crossings declined under the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Net migration from Mexico is negative. The number of undocumented workers in the U.S. has fallen.  

"The southwest land border is more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before," a Homeland Security report declared this month. This is the Trump-led department.

The Washington border debate, often fueled by falsehoods, is more about politics than policy. 

Start with Trump's promise to build an impenetrable wall along the entire Mexican border. During the presidential campaign he said Mexico would pay for it, a commitment he seems to have forgotten. Congressional Republicans are struggling with whether to give Trump some wall money, though they know it's a phony issue -- a fact that even Trump acknowledged in a January phone call with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico that was leaked in August.

"You cannot say anymore that the United States is going to pay for the wall," Trump told Peña Nieto. "I am just going to say that we are working it out. Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important."

A USA Today Network survey demonstrated that while there are gaps in border security, a wall along the 1,989 mile border is infeasible. For starters, it would require taking thousands of parcels of private property, a reality never cited by Trump.

Even if the wall were a workable notion, it wouldn't stop every crossing, the standard that Cornyn has actually tried to turn into a legal requirement. The Berlin Wall, 5 percent as long and studded with land mines and shoot-to-kill riflemen, was never 100 percent secure.

Restrictionist extremists stress the terrorist threat. Last week, Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, said that a border-crossing terrorist could sneak a nuclear bomb into a bale of marijuana. No doubt a few bad guys could slip across the Rio Grande. But a far bigger terrorism source is one of Trump's favorite countries, Saudi Arabia; 15 of the 19 participants in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were Saudis. 

Border security is hardly starved for resources. The budget for customs and border protection was $13.2 billion last year, double the level of a dozen years earlier. There are more than 21,000 patrol personnel, also almost doubling previous levels.

Border Security Spending

Annual budgets by U.S. fiscal year

Source: Department of Homeland Security

Representative Will Hurd, a Republican whose huge Texas district is along 40 percent of the border, wants no part of Trump's wall. Instead, he favors more resources for border-security technology and intelligence to stem the drug trade, along with smarter deployment of personnel.

These changes should be linked, he said, to liberalizing immigration restrictions and absorbing dreamers.

"We have to provide a way for 800,000 who have really only known America as home to have a legal status," Hurd said.

If Democrats can persuade Trump to back off his poisonous policies and rhetoric in exchange for throwing more money at border security, they should take that deal. The U.S. needs immigrants for high-tech innovation; just look at Silicon Valley, where 37 percent of the population is foreign born. And the U.S. needs immigrants for low-tech jobs, too; just look at the shortage of caregivers for the elderly, a gap that won't be closed by U.S.-born workers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Albert R. Hunt at

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    Jonathan Landman at

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