Throughout Donald Trump’s successful run for president, he repeatedly promised to build a “big and beautiful wall” across the southern border that Mexico would pay for.
The pledge enthralled his chanting rally-goers and became his signature campaign promise.
Then it became his albatross.
Mexican leaders made it clear they have no intention of paying for Trump’s wall. That left the president in the position of having to secure funding from U.S. taxpayers — and to spin an ever-shifting series of nonsensical scenarios for how Mexico would indirectly reimburse America, the most recent involving a yet-to-be-ratified trade deal.
Even during two years of Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, Trump couldn’t get major appropriations for his wall (or fence or steel slats or physical barriers or whatever he called it at any given moment).
And even when Democrats dangled $25 billion for the wall if he agreed to a citizenship path for hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who arrived as children, the supposedly master dealmaker couldn’t get it done.
And now, with Democrats in control of the House, he can’t get it done even by forcing the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history, one that has left 800,000 federal workers unpaid and the economy losing an estimated $1.2 billion a week.
What next? Trump is considering declaring a “national emergency” at the southern border, invoking a 1976 law that other presidents have used to help the country in times of dire need.
This approach has its appeal: Government employees would presumably go back to work despite the political impasse. It offers both Trump and Congress a way out of the the box they’ve created while the courts sort out the legality of such a declaration.
But a national emergency declaration would be a misguided and destructive overreach of executive power:
►It stretches the definition of emergency. To be sure, drug trafficking and an influx of Central American families seeking asylum are significant problems. But they fall short of major national security crises, and walls — though hardly the “immorality” cited by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — are at best a small part of the solutions.
Arrests for illegal border-crossing are down about 80 percent since 2000. More undocumented immigrants enter America legally through ports of entry and overstay visas than sneak across the border. And there’s no proof, according to the State Department, that even one terrorist has entered the United States across the southern border through 2017.
►It would be a dangerous precedent. Republicans must surely know they won’t control the White House forever. Don’t they remember denouncing “King Obama” for his executive overreach on immigration? Would they really want a future Democratic president attempting to bypass the will of Congress by declaring national emergencies on gun violence, climate change or health care?
►It would divert money from other important projects. The wall would have to be paid for by reallocating military construction funding approved by Congress but not yet spent.
The longer the shutdown goes on, the more it looks like the bigger emergency is the political one caused by Donald Trump’s inability to fulfill an ill-considered campaign promise. The way out of this morass is through bipartisan compromise, not by bending the law or the Constitution.
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