| December 26, 2018 06:52 PM
In 2006 Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, which mandated the construction of multilayer pedestrian fencing along about 600 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. It passed with big, bipartisan majorities: 283 votes in the House and 80 in the Senate. Some top Democrats who are still in the Senate today supported the fence: Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, Ron Wyden, Debbie Stabenow, and Sherrod Brown.
Just the next year, Congress made clear it didn’t really mean what it said. The new law was amended to make fence building optional.
In 2013, Congress got back into the fence game. The Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill included something called the “Southern Border Fencing Strategy.” It called for 700 miles of at least single-layer pedestrian fencing along the border. It wasn’t a standalone measure; the fence was to be part of a broader package of border security measures alongside provisions that would create a process by which the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants would ultimately gain a path to citizenship.
With citizenship in the deal — even citizenship that would take a decade to achieve in some cases — Democrats were fully on board for a border barrier. The Gang of Eight bill passed in the Senate with 68 votes, including unanimous Democratic support. Name any Democrat who is in the Senate today who was there for that 2013 vote — Schumer, Durbin, Murray, Baldwin, Bennet, Blumenthal, Brown, Cantwell, Cardin, Casey, Coons, Feinstein, Gillibrand, Hirono, Kaine, Klobuchar, Leahy, Manchin, Menendez, Merkley, Murphy, Reed, Sanders, Shaheen, Stabenow, Tester, Warner, Warren, Whitehouse, Wyden — name any, and they voted for the bill that included the Southern Border Fencing Strategy.
In the House, the Republican leadership blocked the Gang of Eight bill from coming to a vote. But the overwhelming majority of House Democrats were said to be in favor of it, so there is no doubt that had the bill been put to a vote, House Democrats, like their counterparts in the Senate, would have supported the fencing provision.
A key part of deliberations inside the Gang of Eight focused on the question of trust. Republicans felt burned by the 1986 immigration reform bill, which called for the government to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants and also institute new border security measures. The amnesty happened but the security did not, leading to an even greater number of people crossing illegally into the United States from Mexico. So many years later, when the Gang of Eight was negotiated, Republicans insisted that security measures actually be implemented and in place before an amnesty, or legalization, or path to citizenship, was granted.
The bill would have given a provisional legal status to illegal immigrants who did not have criminal records. But the Gang of Eight said that border security measures, including the fence, had to be funded and built before those illegal immigrants could be given permanent legal residence in the United States. From the bill:
Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary [of Homeland Security] shall establish a strategy, to be known as the “Southern Border Fencing Strategy,” to identify where 700 mils of fencing (including double-layer fencing), infrastructure, and technology, including at ports of entry, should be deployed along the Southern border…
The Secretary may not adjust the status of aliens who have been granted registered provisional immigrant status…until 6 months after the date on which the Secretary…submits to the President and Congress a written certification that…the Southern Border Fencing Strategy has been submitted to Congress and implemented, and as a result the Secretary will certify that there is in place along the Southern Border no fewer than 700 miles of pedestrian fencing which will include replacement of all currently existing vehicle fencing on non-tribal lands on the Southern Border with pedestrian fencing where possible, and after this has been accomplished may include a second layer of pedestrian fencing in those locations along the Southern Border which the Secretary deems necessary or appropriate.
The Gang of Eight bill passed the Senate in June 2013, five and a half years ago. Now, many Democrats say there are no circumstances under which they would support President Trump’s proposal for a border wall — even if it is in fact a fence, or barrier, or whatever Democrats would prefer to call it. Many observers have noted that the Democratic Party has changed dramatically in the last half-dozen years or so, and one of the areas in which that change has been most pronounced is immigration. On that issue, the party has moved far left.
Today, Democrats will not even support a relatively small amount of money, $5 billion or even less, to build a portion of the barrier Trump wants. A possible deal — wall funding in exchange for DACA legalization — fell through earlier this year in part because Trump added new demands to the wall proposal, but also because a federal judge in California stopped the president’s move to rescind DACA. It was at best a questionable decision — the court said a president cannot use executive action to undo an executive action of a previous president — but it was later backed up by other courts, and it gave Democrats the assurance that they might get what they want from the courts without having to give away anything in a deal with Trump.
And now the Democratic position appears to have hardened further still. Earlier this month, Nancy Pelosi called a border wall “immoral.” How could her party make any deal to support, even a little bit, something her colleagues believe is immoral? It is unclear whether Pelosi thinks all the barriers currently in place on the U.S.-Mexico border are immoral, but it seems clear that she would never support any new ones.
The U.S.-Mexico border is nearly 2,000 miles long. Significant parts of it are so rugged that barriers are simply unnecessary. During the campaign, candidate Trump called for 1,000 miles of wall. Some advocates of more barriers would be happy with a bit less than that.
According to the Border Patrol, there are now 354 miles of single fence along the border. There are 37 miles of double-deep fence and 14 miles of three-deep fencing, for a total of 405 miles of pedestrian fencing. In addition, there are 300 miles of vehicle fencing, which keeps cars and trucks from crossing the border but allows people to move freely.
The Gang of Eight bill would have replaced that with 700 miles of pedestrian fencing, some of it multilayer. It’s less than the 1,000 miles Trump wanted, but the president might well take a deal like that today. The question is whether there are any circumstances under which Democrats would ever agree.