Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Border Fence

4 ways border and migration policy risk spreading coronavirus

Here’s a Twitter-length video I made to accompany yesterday’s commentary on the nightmarish situation at the border right now. The ongoing expulsions, deportations, detentions, and wall-building are being carried out in a way that risks creating new vectors for spreading coronavirus. They’re the opposite of social distancing, and they have to stop.

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in February

  • The State Department’s 2021 foreign aid request to Congress, with much 2019 aid numbers.
    Congressional Budget Justification Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Fiscal Year 2021 (Washington: U.S. Department of State, February 11, 2020) <PDF from https://www.state.gov/fy-2021-international-affairs-budget/>.
  • The annual report to Congress from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (the successor to the old U.S. Army School of the Americas).
    WHINSEC Fiscal Year 2019 Report (Fort Benning: Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, January 29, 2020) <PDF at https://fliphtml5.com/vdwkj/eyga/basic>.
  • Customs and Border Protection’s annual data dump of the previous year’s statistics on migrant apprehensions, staffing, migrant deaths, and a few other items.
    Fiscal Year 2019 Stats and Summaries (Washington: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, February 11, 2020) <Combined PDF file I assembled from documents at https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/media-resources/stats>.
  • The Defense Department’s explanation of how it will move $3.8 billion out of its budget to pay for border-wall building because Trump declared an “emergency” last year.
    Support for DHS Counter-Drug Activity Reprogramming Action (Washington: U.S. Department of Defense Comptroller, February 13, 2020) <PDF at https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/execution/reprogramming/fy2020/reprogramming_action/20-01_RA_Support_for_DHS_Counter_Drug_Activity.pdf>.
  • Customs and Border Protection’s 2021 budget request to Congress.
    U.S. Customs and Border Protection Budget Overview Fiscal Year 2021 Congressional Justification (Washington: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, February 11, 2020) <PDF at https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/6_u.s._customs_and_border_protection.pdf>. See also the Acting Commissioner’s February 27 testimony to House appropriators.
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 2021 budget request to Congress.
    U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview Fiscal Year 2021 Congressional Justification (Washington: Department of Homeland Security, February 11, 2020) <PDF at https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/7_u.s._immigration_and_customs_enforcement.pdf>.
  • The Defense Department’s modestly useful, but mostly indecipherable, presentation of its overseas security assistance programs.
    Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 President’s Budget Justification for Security Cooperation Program and Activity Funding (Washington: U.S. Department of Defense, February 4, 2020) <PDF at https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2021/fy2021_Security_Cooperation_Book_FINAL.pdf>.
  • The White House’s vague, brief “Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy.”
    National Drug Control Strategy Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy 2020 (Washington: Office of National Drug Control Policy, February 20, 2020) <PDF at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2020-Southwest-Border-Counternarcotics-Strategy.pdf>.
  • The White House’s vague, brief “National Interdiction Command and Control Plan.”
    National Interdiction Command and Control Plan (Washington: Office of National Drug Control Policy, February 20, 2020) <PDF at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2020-National-Interdiction-Command-and-Control-Plan.pdf>.

Last day at the border, for now

Go to the New York Times right now, and there’s a video on the front page from Tijuana, where I spent the last 2 days. Look really closely and you can see me very briefly, lurking by the San Diego-Tijuana port of entry very early Wednesday morning:

Here’s a video from yesterday, in which WOLA’s president, Matt Clausen, and I do more than lurk. An 18-minute discussion of border security and our trip, filmed as a “Facebook Live” right next to where the border wall hits the Pacific Ocean.

I’ll post more when I have a chance to write, hopefully in the airport this evening, I’m flying back to Washington overnight.

What a “partial” government shutdown would affect

I just went through the outstanding appropriations bills and came up with this incomplete list of agencies that would be affected if parts of the U.S. federal government “shut down” at midnight tonight.

President Trump insists that he won’t sign a 2019 budget bill—not even a stopgap to keep the government open for a few weeks—unless it includes $5 billion to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Senate rules require 60 votes to stop debate and vote on such a bill. There are only 51 Republicans in this Senate, and 53 in the Senate that begins on January 1 (when the House becomes majority Democratic). So this “partial shutdown” could drag on for a very long time.

Many of the agencies listed here will continue to operate to some extent, by requiring “essential” staff to report for work (though who knows when they’ll be paid), by depending on fee-based revenue, or other means. But if this shutdown is prolonged, nearly all will find themselves unable to operate normally, if at all.

Department of Agriculture

  • Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
  • Child Nutrition Programs
  • Food Safety and Inspection Service
  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program)

Department of Commerce

  • Bureau of the Census
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Department of Homeland Security

  • Domestic Nuclear Detection Office
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
  • Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers
  • Transportation Security Administration
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • U.S. Secret Service

Department of Housing and Urban Development

  • Federal Housing Administration
  • Government National Mortgage Association

Department of the Interior

  • Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Forest Service
  • National Park Service
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Geological Survey

Department of Justice

  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives
  • Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Federal Prison System
  • U.S. Attorneys

Department of State

  • Export-Import Bank of the United States
  • Inter-American Foundation
  • Millennium Challenge Corporation
  • Overseas Private Investment Corporation
  • Peace Corps
  • U.S. African Development Foundation
  • U.S. Agency for International Development
  • U.S. Trade and Development Agency

Department of Transportation

  • Federal Aviation Administration
  • Federal Highway Administration
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Department of the Treasury

  • Office of Foreign Assets Control
  • Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence
  • U.S. Mint

The White House

  • Council of Economic Advisers
  • Executive Office of the President
  • Homeland Security Council
  • National Security Council
  • Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
  • Office of National Drug Control Policy

The Judiciary

  • Courts of Appeals, District Courts, and Other Judicial Services
  • Supreme Court of the United States
  • U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

Independent Agencies

  • Broadcasting Board of Governors
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
  • Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
  • Federal Election Commission
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
  • General Services Administration (GSA)
  • John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • NASA
  • National Archives and Records Administration
  • National Endowment for Democracy
  • National Endowment for the Arts
  • National Endowment for the Humanities
  • National Gallery of Art
  • National Science Foundation
  • National Transportation Safety Board
  • Office of Government Ethics
  • Office of Personnel Management (OPM)
  • Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
  • Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
  • Selective Service System
  • Small Business Administration
  • the Smithsonian Institution
  • U.S. Institute of Peace
  • U.S. International Trade Commission
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • Washington, DC
  • Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Yep

People have asked me, “Didn’t you listen to Trump when he said that he would build a wall?” I didn’t take the idea seriously during the campaign.

From “I voted for Trump. Now his wall may destroy my butterfly paradise,” a Washington Post column by Luciano Guerra, “a nature photographer and outreach coordinator and educator for the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas.”

The End of One-Party Rule is the End of Trump’s Border Wall

Sorry, but no.

Even before the Democratic Party won majority control of the House of Representatives, it wasn’t clear how Donald Trump was going to be able to get his border wall through Congress, which must approve the funding for it. Senate rules make it possible to block big budget outlays—like $25 billion for a wall—if 60 senators don’t first allow a vote to proceed. The Senate’s Republicans were (and still are) well short of that “filibuster-proof majority,” and Trump had been threatening to shut down the government to try to break the inevitable logjam of opposition.

His bargaining position just got far weaker. With the result of Tuesday’s midterm elections, Trump’s border wall has hit a wall of its own. With a Democratic majority, there is no way that a piece of legislation with border-wall money can pass the House of Representatives. Full stop.

Democrats will now write the first draft of all funding legislation. The Homeland Security appropriations bill will be drafted by a subcommittee headed by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, who strongly opposes Trump’s wall. “I am acutely aware of America’s security funding priorities,” she said in January. “We will not address our security needs by building this wall.” In July 2017, when the appropriations subcommittee that she will now preside met to approve the 2018 Homeland Security budget bill, Rep. Roybal-Allard introduced an amendment that would have cut Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Border Assets and Infrastructure funding by $1,571,239,000—the exact cost of the border wall—and to use it for other purposes. The amendment failed by a party-line vote of 22 to 30.

Democrats will also decide ahead of time which bills and amendments may be considered on the floor of the House of Representatives. Because there are so many representatives, the House has a Rules Committee that acts as a gatekeeper. It meets before any major legislation comes to the House floor, to decide which bills and amendments will be “in order”—that is, permitted to be considered—during the next day’s debate. Republicans have used the Rules Committee to prevent much legislation and amendments from coming to the floor, ruling it “out of order.” As of January, though, this powerful committee will be chaired by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), a longtime advocate of human rights in Latin America.

It is very hard to imagine a scenario in which President Trump gets his border wall through this House of Representatives. And if it doesn’t get through the House, it doesn’t get through Congress, and it doesn’t get funded.

Unless: if the president really wants his border wall, Democrats might be open to a deal if it includes big concessions to their agenda. President Trump would have to give the Democratic Party something very big to win their approval for his wall. That “something” would probably have to do with immigration policy.

In 2017, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York) reportedly offered not to filibuster a package of border-wall money if the White House and Senate Republicans supported legislation allowing “Dreamers” to stay in the United States. That deal fell through, and now that judicial decisions have preserved Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for now, the Democrats would probably demand much more for border-wall funding. Their demands would probably extend to preserving access to asylum, strict limits on family detention and separation, non-deportation of migrants with Temporary Protected Status, reforms to CBP and ICE, and probably other demands that strike at the heart of Donald Trump and Stephen Miller’s anti-immigrant crusade.

If the White House isn’t willing to concede a lot on immigration—and after the over-the-top campaign rhetoric we’ve just heard, it probably isn’t—then Trump’s border wall is dead and done with. We are now “beyond the wall.”

At wola.org: 23 Amazing Things You Can Do for the Cost of a Few Miles of Border Wall

Last week, the Trump administration let drop at least a vague idea of how much it would cost to build its big border wall: 722 miles at $18 billion over 10 years.

That comes out to a very expensive $25 million per mile. Which gave me an idea: what do other items—whether government spending or features of everyday life—cost when expressed as a number of border-wall miles?

We came up with a list of 23, which is here. Some examples:

  1. Jordan Peele made the 2017 smash-hit movie Get Out for a total budget of 0.18 Border-Wall Miles. It grossed over 10 Border-Wall Miles at the box office.
  2. Fully implementing the entire “Illicit Cultivation” chapter of Colombia’s 2016 peace accord—which would do away with most of the country’s coca crop—would cost about 52 Border-Wall Miles.
  3. At the Chipotle franchise nearest to WOLA’s offices, a single Border-Wall Mile could buy 3,125,000 chicken burritos, including sales tax. Laid end-to-end, these burritos would stretch for nearly 400 miles, longer than Arizona’s entire border with Mexico. (Guacamole is extra.)
  4. The 2017 world-champion Houston Astros began the season with a total payroll of 5 Border-Wall Miles.
  5. For budget reasons, the U.S. Navy hasn’t patrolled the Caribbean, or Central America’s Pacific coast, for suspect cocaine shipments since 2015. The Coast Guard has been doing this on its own, with six to ten cutters, that are only able to interdict about thirty percent of known suspected smugglers. It would cost the Navy 17 Border-Wall Miles to deploy a refitted Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate for ten years, as the Navy Secretary has recommended.
  6. The 2017 world-champion Houston Astros began the season with a total payroll of 5 Border-Wall Miles.

See them all here.

No you won’t

I’ve had about two dozen meetings since April to talk with congressional staff about border security. I’ve met about equally with Democrats and Republicans, in both houses.

What can I say. It’s been weeks since I’ve even bothered to open a meeting by talking about the border wall. It just gets dismissed out of hand. A few miles may get built here and there—maybe some levee wall in south Texas—but I don’t see interest in hundreds of miles, much less a coast-to-coast wall.

Homeland Security funds are scarce, and more fencing is way down serious people’s list of priorities for securing the border. I’m concluding that Congress is about as willing to pay for it as Mexico is.

Podcast: “The Border Wall and the Budget”

The Trump White House came dangerously close to shutting down the U.S. government over funding for its proposed wall along the border with Mexico. Here I explain the budget process, what we know of the administration’s wall-building plans, and why it’s a bad idea.

I think this one came out pretty well.

New report: “Throwing Money at the Wall”

Report cover graphic

Here’s a 350-word summary of my 3,000-word report on what’s up with Trump’s border wall, which we just posted to WOLA’s website. But you should really ignore this and read the longer one: it’s better and has graphics and links to lots of sources.

How much would Trump’s proposed border wall cost? We’ve seen estimates ranging from $8 billion to $66.9 billion.

What would the wall look like? There are requests for proposals for two designs: concrete and “other.” The concrete one calls for something 18-30 feet high, going 6 feet underground. Nobody has any idea how many miles of wall might be built, though Customs and Border Protection staff gave Senate staff a figure of 1,827 miles. This amount would require some very difficult and costly wall-building along the winding Rio Grande in Texas.

What’s in the 2017 budget request? The White House wants $999 million in new 2017 budget money to get wall-building started and construct 62 miles. Right now, it only has $20 million on hand for this year, which doesn’t pay for much.

Will the 2017 money pass? For now, it looks like no, there won’t be any new border-wall money for 2017. The $999 million would go on a budget bill that has to pass by April 28th. Congressional Democrats, who have the power to block the bill in the Senate, are threatening to shut down the government rather than approve this money. Republican legislators, too, are either skeptical or want more information about the wall-building plan before they approve such a large amount. Polls meanwhile are also consistently showing 60-plus percent of respondents opposed to the border wall proposal.

What about 2018 funds? Information is vague, but the administration wants $2.6 billion to build about 75 miles next year. So the most intense debate on this may start mid-year.

Why is this such a bad idea? To build a wall would be to throw away a lot of money and a lot of international goodwill for nothing. A wall only slows a border-crosser for several minutes, which makes little difference in remote areas. Illegal migration is at nearly 45-year lows, while most drugs that cross the border (except marijuana) are low-volume substances that travel through ports of entry, not through areas where walls would be built. There are better ways to address remaining border security challenges.

Read “Throwing Money at the Wall” here.

My growing collection of Trump border wall cost estimates

(I put these together as part of a still-unfinished piece that WOLA will publish online… sometime after I finish it.)

What might it cost to fulfill Donald Trump’s promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border? Estimates of construction cost vary wildly. Here is a range culled from U.S. media:

  • $8 billion, says the National Precast Concrete Association, whose estimate doesn’t take into account the cost of acquiring land.
  • $12 billion, Trump has said.
  • $12 billion to $15 billion, say Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin).
  • “Republicans expect the final price tag for the wall could be more than $20 billion,” according to Politico.
  • An internal Homeland Security Department report acquired by Reuters “estimated that fully walling off or fencing the entire southern border would cost $21.6 billion—$9.3 million per mile of fence and $17.8 million per mile of wall.”
  • “I’ve got, I don’t know, six or seven different papers on my desk,” White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt. “I’ve got one that goes, starts at $8 million per mile. It goes up to about $25 million per mile. So again, it just depends on, when you’re talking about across 2,000 miles or so, what you decide to build in what areas.” The U.S.-Mexico border is just under 2,000 miles, but using that ballpark figure and that per-mile amount yields a border-wide cost of $16 billion to $50 billion.
  • After receiving a briefing from U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, extrapolates the $36.6 million per-mile cost of the administration’s request for 2018, and comes up with $66.9 billion.

Seen any others?

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.