A House-Senate conference committee is beginning work on a package of border security policies that, it is hoped, can win the support of both Democrats and Republicans. The final product is certain to include several measures that already have full, bipartisan approval: more immigration judges, more technology to detect illegal drugs at ports of entry, more humanitarian aid for migrants in custody, etc.
The hang-up, of course, will be a border barrier. President Trump insists on money -- his demand is $5.7 billion -- that would build new steel-slat barriers along about 230 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. About 80 miles of that would replace current, dilapidated, inadequate fencing, while 150 or so miles would cover currently unfenced areas.
On the other side are Democrats led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has called a border wall "an immorality between nations" and denies evidence that a barrier would increase border security by decreasing the number of illegal crossings into the United States.
Pelosi won the 35-day partial government shutdown by sticking to her position. The new negotiations will test whether she and other Democratic barrier deniers can prevail again.
The need for new and improved barriers along some parts of the border is in the news almost daily. Take, for example, the events of Jan. 24 near Lukeville, Arizona, in the Tucson Sector of the border. Even though there is a six-lane crossing at Lukeville, migrants seek to enter the United States illegally in nearby areas that have ineffective fencing. Thus, on the 24th, Border Patrol agents found a large group -- 242 people, most from Central America -- who illegally crossed the border west of Lukeville.
"Agents discovered the group after they crawled over and under the crude vehicle barrier separating the United States from Mexico," the Border Patrol said in a press release.
Just a week earlier, a group of 84 migrants arrived nearby in a tour bus, and then crawled under the fence into the United States, where they were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents.
On Dec. 19-20, in nearly the same place, the Border Patrol apprehended 306 Central American migrants crossing illegally into the U.S.
Clearly, the fencing in that part of the Tucson Sector is not working.
The border is 1,954 miles long. Everyone agrees that big parts of it do not require any fencing because the terrain is so rough that it makes crossing very difficult.
On the other hand, a significant part of the border does need barriers. Right now, there are about 705 miles of fencing -- about 405 miles of pedestrian fencing and about 300 of vehicle fencing, which blocks vehicles but allows people on foot to cross easily.
The vehicle fencing did nothing to stop recent crossings near Lukeville and in other places on the border. In addition, some of the pedestrian fencing is easy to breach because it is old, falling apart and was never that imposing in the first place. The Trump administration seeks to do three things: 1. Replace some ineffective pedestrian fence; 2. Replace current vehicle fence with new pedestrian fence; and 3. Build new pedestrian fence in some currently unfenced areas.
The construction of barriers dramatically reduces illegal border crossing attempts. Looking at the Yuma Sector along the border in western Arizona, in 2005, before the construction of barriers, the Border Patrol caught 138,438 illegal crossers, according to figures compiled by the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors greater restrictions on immigration. Last year, with barriers, there were 26,244 such apprehensions in the Yuma Sector.
The San Diego Sector in California is a case study in the effectiveness of a border barrier. In 1986, before the construction of a barrier, there were more than 628,000 apprehensions, while untold numbers of others successfully made it across the border illegally. In 2017, after the construction of extensive barriers, there were 26,086 apprehensions, according to the Border Patrol.
Would anyone argue that border barriers had nothing to do with those striking before-and-after reductions? And, given what is happening in the Tucson Sector and other places today, would anyone argue that new, more daunting barriers such as the Trump administration proposes would not reduce the number of illegal crossings?
The effectiveness of border barriers is a settled fact. Yet some Democrats, led by the speaker of the House, deny that fact and insist that new and improved barriers would not increase border security. Other prominent Democrats, such as recently declared presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, have called the Trump barrier proposal a "medieval vanity project."
At the same time, other Democrats seem more willing to take a fact-based approach. "In the past, we have supported ... enhanced fencing," Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a member of the Democratic leadership, said recently. "And I think that's something that's reasonable that should be on the table."
Who will prevail in the border talks? Will it be Pelosi and her fellow deniers, or Jeffries and the reality-based community? The president and Congress have two weeks to find out.