When the nation’s intelligence officials presented their global threat assessment to Congress last week, they didn’t talk about a security crisis at the border with Mexico. In that way, their analysis departed sharply from the State of the Union address delivered by President Trump on Tuesday evening. The president described “the lawless state of our southern border.” He cited “a threat to the safety, security and financial well-being of all Americans.”
Note the amount of time he devoted to the border, and the impression was reinforced: The president sees no higher national priority.
Yet the intelligence officials are right. By the relevant indicators, there is no crisis at the border, let alone “a lawless state.” Consider the decline in annual apprehensions, partly due to enhanced security the past two decades, the number falling from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 to 400,000 last year. Surveys show that those residing within 350 miles of the border are among the least supportive of the president’s call for “a new physical barrier, or wall, to secure the vast areas between our ports of entry,” as he put it in his address.
This goes to the argument that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats won in holding firm and bringing an end to the recent partial government shutdown. There isn’t sufficient support among Democrats, Republicans and security experts for a wall. That is further evident in the news accounts of the negotiations involving the bipartisan congressional panel looking for a compromise to avoid another shutdown next week.
At this point, it is wise for Pelosi and allies to acknowledge what they have achieved by showing they are ready to devote substantial new resources to border security — including physical barriers where they are deemed most effective. Such barriers long have had a role. Security experts put much greater emphasis on technology and personnel.
This is a package both parties can support, as they have in the past. It should be something the president could back, the result moving in the direction of the improved border enforcement he has advocated.
Not that the president made things easier in his address. The early expressions of unity and comity gave way to familiar exaggerations, half-truths and falsehoods about the border. The many fact-checkers were busy, noting, among other things, it has not been established that one out of three women are sexually assaulted “on the long journey north.” El Paso, Texas, did not go from “extremely high rates of violent crime” to “one of our safest cities” because of “a powerful barrier.” The city had one of the lowest violent crime rates before the construction of a fence began in 2008.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found that border fencing in San Diego, erected in 1992, “did not have a discernible impact on the influx of unauthorized aliens.” Again, illegal drugs are more likely to arrive through ports of entry. The much larger share of undocumented immigrants have overstayed their visas. The challenge today is far more about asylum-seekers who seek out border authorities, the influx requiring more personnel to assess their claims.
That has been the shame in all of this, the way the president has distorted reality and degraded the debate. He made the ridiculous promise about Mexico paying for the wall. He threatens executive action if he doesn’t get what he wants, though Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has warned against such a step. The hope is that congressional negotiators soon will find agreement and advance a border security package. If the president balks, they would have reason to move ahead, anyway, and override his veto.