From Cornyn, a border security plan less Trumpian, more Texas-friendly

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn points to a poster with an image of barrier on the Texas-Mexico border as he announces his border security plan Thursday on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo)

For President Trump, a border wall is a signature piece of his domestic agenda, of such magnitude to him politically that he fumed with Mexican President Peña Nieto and pleaded with him to stop saying Mexico wouldn’t pay for it. More on that later.

For U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, however, a border wall is important, but it’s not everything.

“It’s not the whole story,” the Republican Texas senator said Thursday as he presented his $15 billion border security plan that relies more on personnel and technology and less on a wall than the president might like.

As Maria Recio reported in the American-Statesman, Cornyn’s border plan calls for a layered strategy of walls, fencing, levees and technology. Called the Building America’s Trust Act, the bill would increase the number of federal agents at ports of entry and on the border, as well as add more immigration judges and prosecutors. It also would pour more resources into state and local efforts to fight drug trafficking.

VIEWPOINTS: Jobs, not ‘sanctuary’ policies beckon immigrants to U.S.

Cornyn’s plan brings a more reasoned alternative to Trump’s one-size-fits-all, build a border wall approach. It is also likely to go over better with Texans who oppose a wall for a number of reasons, not the least of which is some people just don’t think it’s necessary. Many of those critics live along the border, a point Cornyn subtly referenced when he said federal authorities should consult local officials in shaping border strategy.

That’s something you hear a lot in South Texas and up and down the border, where some residents feel they’ve become a requisite photo op for politicians who swoop in for an hour or two to assess border security — as if that’s all it takes — then return to their respective homes in faraway states. That’s what Trump the presidential candidate did in a 2015 visit to Laredo.

It’ll be interesting to see how Cornyn’s bill progresses and whether it receives bipartisan support. As a border senator and majority whip, he holds considerable sway in Congress and on the fortunes of any border security measure.

‘You cannot say that to the press.’

Trump paved a path to the White House in no small measure on his boastful promise to build a “beautiful” border wall.

“And who’s going to pay for it?” Trump would ask delirious supporters at campaign rallies.

“Mexico will!” they would roar in response.

But leaked transcripts of a January phone call between Trump and Peña Nieto reveal the president knew Mexico would never pay for the wall and that his demand for payment was just a political play. More importantly, he wanted the Mexican president to stop saying publicly that Mexico wouldn’t pay for a wall.

Trump acknowledged that his public posturing on the wall had left him in an extremely tight spot politically.

“The fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind, because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to,” Trump told Peña Nieto in the call.

When Peña Nieto kept insisting that Mexico wouldn’t pay, Trump said: “You cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that.”

Trump later said the border wall is not all that important – remarkable considering all his bluster about it.

“Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important (thing we) talk about,” Trump said.

Trump has steered away more recently from demanding that Mexico pay. He’s asked Congress for a $1.6 billion down payment for the wall, which the House has approved. Mexico will “reimburse” the U.S., Trump has said, without offering details on how that might happen.

That all sounds fuzzy. One thing is clear from that January phone call, however: Mexico won’t pay for the wall, and Trump knows it.

That means — and let’s face it, we knew this all along — American taxpayers will foot the bill, which the Department of Homeland Security says could hit $21.6 billion. Will Trump’s supporters still cheer?

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As Trump pulls back on a border wall, some aren’t pleased

A boy runs up toward the U.S. border fence from his backyard in San Benito in June. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

Like the twisting Rio Grande, President Trump’s position on a border wall is changing course.

The president, who made the promise of a “big, beautiful border wall” one of the cornerstone promises of his campaign, significantly dialed back on the pledge Thursday, telling reporters that a 2,000-mile-long wall is no longer necessary “because you have a lot of natural barriers.”

“You have mountains. You have some rivers that are violent and vicious,” Trump said, according to excerpts released by the White House from the president’s conversation with journalists aboard Air Force One. “You have some areas that are so far away that you don’t really have people crossing. So, you don’t need that.”

Hmmm, that sounds a lot like Texas to us.

RELATED: “Why the border wall fences us in”

The president said he now believes only 700 to 900 miles of wall are needed. About 650 miles of the border with Mexico are already protected by fences or walls; many of those miles in Texas. Trump seemed to suggest that repairing fences already in place would count against the total miles he has in mind, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“You know, we’ve already started the wall because we’re fixing large portions of wall right now,” Trump said. “We’re taking wall that was good but it’s in very bad shape, and we’re making it new.”

At campaign rallies, where supporters’ chants of “build that wall” became a staple, Trump often talked about a wall 30 feet high running the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. But on Thursday the president described a new vision of a wall more closely resembling the fencing already up in places like South Texas, where, at least in some cases, fences hug residents’ back yards.

“You need transparency,” Trump said. “In other words, if you can’t see through that wall — so it could be a steel wall with openings, but you have to have openings because you have to see what’s on the other side of the wall.”

Trump won the support of conservative groups who liked his tough campaign talk on immigration. Some clearly aren’t happy with his changing course on a border wall.

“We don’t have the rule of law when it comes to immigration,” Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington told the Times. “It doesn’t exist. There’s immigration anarchy.”

His new position, however, is likely to go over better with some of the president’s prominent supporters in Texas, who think more border walls aren’t the answer on border security. They include Dennis Nixon, a well-known Laredo banking executive who had this to say to me recently about a border wall: “No serious person thinks you can build a wall from El Paso to Brownsville with any kind of reasonable expectation it will be successful.”

Nixon was the Texas finance chair for the Donald J. Trump for President campaign. Among other solutions, he advocates cleaning up dense vegetation along the Rio Grande so that border enforcement agents gain better access and visibility.

A final footnote on why Trump said a border wall needs openings, and we’ll leave it there.

“As horrible as it sounds,” Trump said, “when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them — they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over. As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall.”

 

 

 

Trump doubles down on a border wall, and a government shutdown looms

The border fence between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
The border fence between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (The New York Times)

 

What are we to make of Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist extraordinaire who is embroiled in a child custody battle in a Travis County courtroom? His attorney wants us to believe Jones’ bombastic on-air persona is merely performance art – just for show, folks, that’s all. Jones, however, asserts no trickery is involved.

A far cry from President Trump, another well-known figure known for his crowd-pleasing bluster. You can count on Trump meaning what he says. Well, except for when he doesn’t.

Take for instance the president’s recent flip-flop on NATO, the trans-Atlantic alliance Trump called “obsolete” throughout the campaign and as recently as last month. The president declared then that NATO “doesn’t cover terrorism,” which isn’t true.

But earlier this month, as he stood with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump had a sudden change of heart. “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete,” the president said, explaining that NATO made a change and now fights terrorism. The record says otherwise; as the Washington Post noted, NATO has been active in counterterrorism since 1980, even moreso since 9/11.

The newspaper has taken to calling Trump the “king of flip-flops.” Like the Post, a number of news organizations routinely chronicle the president’s many 180-degree turns on policy.

But there is one policy position where the president isn’t showing any signs of budging or flip-flopping – his vision of a border wall.

On Thursday Trump doubled down on one of his signature campaign pledges. He wants Congress to add money for a new wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border to a massive spending bill, potentially forcing a government shutdown. As the Chicago Tribune reported:

Trump’s request, outlined in conversations with White House officials and in a memo from budget director Mick Mulvaney, calls for $33 billion in new defense and border spending — and $18 billion in cuts to other priorities, such as medical research and jobs programs.

RELATED: A border wall riddled with holes in logic 

RELATED: Why the border wall fences us in

A partial government shutdown would begin April 29 if the spending bill isn’t passed.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told The Associated Press that Democratic negotiators on the spending bill need to sign on to funding the president’s priorities, including a down payment on a border wall and hiring more immigration agents.

“Elections have consequences,” Mulvaney said. “We want wall funding.”
Mulvaney said the Trump administration knows many in Congress, especially Democrats, don’t like the wall, “but they lost the election.”

More Americans opposed (62 percent) than favored (35 percent) building a wall, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in February.

A partial government shutdown is never popular and at least for now, it appears few in Congress share the White House’s desire to flirt with one, though some Democrats vow to oppose the wall and even some conservative Republicans object, though on fiscal grounds.

The Department of Homeland Security pegs the cost of a wall at up to $21.6 billion. Trump famously vowed throughout his campaign to make Mexico pay for the wall. That’s obviously not in the cards. Was it ever, really?

With the spectre of a government shutdown looming, some on Capitol Hill expect a bipartisan spending bill will emerge by next week’s end, and that a vote on funding for the wall will come in a separate spending bill later this year.

One thing is clear: Trump administration requests to fund the wall aren’t going away. The president is adamant about fulfilling his vision of a “big, beautiful border wall.”

 

 

 

 

Why the border wall fences us in

A section of the border fence with a gate, bounded by smaller chain-link fence in Runn, Texas. The patchwork border fence along the Texas-Mexico border has created a nebulous and bizarre third space between countries.   Kelly West/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

From atop a dusty bluff on the U.S. Mexico border in deep South Texas, the mighty Rio Grande commands the panoramic vista below. Its waters a muted hue of green, the river courses wildly in every direction, zig-zagging here, straightening out there for about a mile due south before making an impossible hairpin turn due north, then zig-zagging again. With its bedeviling twists and turns, the Rio Grande is God’s work or Nature’s work, or both.

This is the border.

The border fence, however, is far from the river’s edge in many places, up to a mile in some spots, leaving many Texans and their way of life caught in something of a No Man’s Land, as reporter Jeremy Schwartz noted in last Sunday’s American-Statesman.

In communities up and down the Rio Grande Valley, people’s homes, their farmlands, nature trails and wildlife sanctuaries, cemeteries and soccer fields are caught in the space between. Intended to keep people out, the fence instead cuts off sizable pieces of Texas from the people who live there. Even some homeowners have been cut off from their own land.

Then there’s the case of Greg Garcia. To get to his classes at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, Garcia regularly passes through an opening in the 18-foot-high border fence. To get home, he drives south past the fence, where U.S. Border Patrol agents let him through.

Large numbers of people make similar every-day adjustments to get to school, to their jobs and to their homes. It’s an alternative universe not like the way of life people along the border knew for generations before, a carefree existence that allowed children to frolic in the river’s cool waters on scorching summer days.

Though I’ve lived in Austin most of my adult life, I grew up in the Valley and still consider myself a son of the border. When I was a kid, crossing the border meant a Sunday afternoon outing with your parents, strolling the plaza, getting your shoes shined, stocking up on cookies and candies and enjoying a Mexican coke before it was hip.

Not everyone thinks the fence upsets the way of life here, however. Arnold Lopez says he hardly sees the steel fence anymore, having crossed it so many times. “It’s not like it’s the Berlin Wall or anything,” he told Schwartz.

RELATED EDITORIAL: Toughened enforcement policies overlook immigrant contributions

Only about 10 percent of the border in Texas is currently fenced in, but President Trump has promised to build 1,250 miles of new border wall, most of it in Texas. A Department of Homeland Security report puts the price tag at a staggering $21.6 billion. If Trump fulfills his vow, it’s likely that much more of Texas will be caught in a no man’s land, because unlike many parts of other border states, in this state the Rio Grande hugs residents’ back yards and vast parcels of private land.

The madly winding shoreline made building a wall a maddening experience for federal officials a decade ago. They learned that fencing along the river’s banks would exacerbate flooding. And most riverfront land in Texas is in private hands, forcing the government to negotiate rights of way or claim eminent domain in the courts.

The prospect of extending the existing wall should lead Texans to ask if building more will expand the No Man’s Land beyond just South Texas.

A border wall is President Trump’s magic answer for solving illegal immigration. His campaign rhetoric stirred up fear, painting a portrait of a sievelike border overrun by criminals and rapists. Trump would have you believe that the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. all sneaked across. He would have you think they’re all from Mexico, and that illegal immigration is growing.

A new study by the Center for Migration Studies, however, separates hot rhetoric from cold reality. The report found that fully two-thirds of immigrants who joined the undocumented population in 2014 did not sneak across, but instead entered the country legally with a valid visa and then overstayed. No amount of border fencing will stop people from entering the U.S. legally.

And the current reality is that the number of Mexicans apprehended by the Border Patrol has plummeted from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 to about 193,000 in 2016, a near-historic low. Pew also found that the number of Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. illegally has declined by more than 1 million since 2007. More recently, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly touted a 40 percent drop in the number of illegal border crossings through Mexico this year.

And then there’s this nugget from Pew: The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. has not changed since 2009.

Facts can be inconvenient and I doubt politicians have those figures at their fingertips when they parachute in, donning body armor to ride speedboats down the Rio Grande, flanked by law enforcement officers brandishing high-powered rifles. Fleeting moments made for television campaign commercials.

The Texas border wall fences us in, corralling too a reality that’s as murky as the Rio Grande after a summer thundershower. For every Rio Grande Valley resident who has had it with illegal immigration  — and there are many — you can find at least one other who says a border fence doesn’t make them feel any safer. Some fear an expanded wall will destroy communities, and that money for it would be better spent on motion sensors and technology.

As we all question whether an expanded wall will be efficient and useful, we should glean what we can from life in the shadow of the patchwork border fence in South Texas, and we should ask, “Is a wall worth the cost?”

A Trump immigration curveball? More like whiplash

FILE- In this March 3, 2015 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers escort an arrestee in an apartment building, in the Bronx borough of New York, during a series of early-morning raids. New York City leaders are trying to strike a balance between purging dangerous criminals and protecting some of its roughly 500,000 undocumented immigrants. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
In this March 3, 2015 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers escort an arrestee in an apartment building, in the Bronx borough of New York, during a series of early-morning raids. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

When the stunning news broke late Tuesday that President Trump said he is open to an immigration overhaul allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally, one news organization called the president’s abrupt shift on immigration “a curveball.”

Curveball? More like whiplash maybe.

After all, what else are we to make of such a sudden reversal from the president’s hard-line crackdown on illegal immigration during his first weeks in office? Take, for example, last month’s sweeping Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Austin and across the country. And just last week, the administration unveiled new deportation rules allowing federal agents to go after anyone living in the country illegally, even if they haven’t committed serious crimes — a stark contrast to the Obama administration’s policies that placed a priority on deporting criminals.

RELATED EDITORIAL: Toughened Enforcement policies overlook immigrant contributions

“The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides,” the president reportedly told TV news anchors at a White House meeting over lunch Tuesday.

Did this herald a new softer tone on immigration? Remember, this is the same Donald Trump whose rock concert-like campaign rallies reverberated with supporters’ chants of “build the wall!” on the U.S.-Mexico border. And Trump’s run for office began with a pledge to deport the nation’s estimated 11.1 million immigrants, something even those in his own party have described as unrealistic and bordering on fantasy.

Only a few hours after that meeting with the TV anchors, however, the president didn’t even mention in his first joint address to Congress that he might be receptive to an immigration overhaul giving legal status to millions of unauthorized immigrants.

In fact, Trump doubled down on aggressive enforcement, reiterating his campaign promise to begin building a border wall. “A great, great wall,” he called it.

And the president fell back on the familiar refrain of highlighting the crimes of undocumented immigrants, announcing that he has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to work with victims of crimes committed by immigrants who are in the country illegally.

After the speech to Congress, news analysts pounced on the chance to speculate why the president had not brought up his remarks earlier in the day about immigration. One said the president obviously had been reined in by his inner circle, who advised him that now is not the time.

But if not now, when? If the president couldn’t talk about immigration reform to a cheering audience dominated by those of his own party, then when? Certainly not at one of his rallies in places across the country, which Trump continues to hold even after his election, and where his legions of supporters continue their full-throated chant, “Build the Wall!”