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The “Crisis” Isn’t at the Border

There is an emergency all right, but it’s at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
January 8, 2019
The “Crisis” Isn’t at the Border
Donald Trump in the Oval Office. (Photo by Zach Gibson-Pool/Getty Images)

As I was saying…

Because I undoubtedly committed a grievous sin either in my youth or another life (depending on your theology), I found myself having to debate the national “crisis” at the border with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski Monday night.

Lewandowski dutifully recited his talking points, including insisting that the president would be justified in declaring a national emergency to build the wall and seize property from landowners along the border.

I had stronger language in mind, but called Lewandowski’s argument a “Vesuvius of BS.”

We can expect more of the same from the president tonight when he gives an address from the Oval Office .

Boxed into a political corner of his own making, the president will insist that the nation faces a “humanitarian and security crisis” that requires him to push for the costly, ineffective boondoggle formerly known as the wall. (It is now something between a steel barrier and a set of Venetians blinds. And Mexico still won’t pay for the thing.)

All of this is familiar, and needs some context.

It was that great Democratic intellectual, Rahm Emanuel, who observed that, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Trump’s variation on the theme is, basically, “Never let a serious political problem stop you from inventing a fictious crisis.”

To be sure there are problems at the border; a humanitarian disaster that is largely a product of Trump’s own policy of deterrence through cruelty, and there is a modest uptick in the number of arrests on the border. Families continue to trek north from Central America.

But there is no crisis; just as there was no crisis when he dispatched troops to stop the “invasion” by the caravan before the midterm elections.

In his cynical demagoguery, the president has routinely conflated illegal immigration with terrorism, but on Monday NBC News reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection “encountered only six immigrants on the U.S-Mexico border in the first half of fiscal year 2018 whose names were on a federal government list of known or suspected terrorists.”

Six. Not the 4,000 that the administration has been touting. And the gap between those numbers is the gap between the president’s fabulism and reality.

Over the weekend, Fox News’ Chris Wallace also debunked the terrorism claim, pointing out that the vast majority of suspects on the watch list had been stopped at airports, not along the border.

Other fact-checkers have grown weary from the task of exposing the bogus rhetoric around the border crisis. The reality is that border arrests are down dramatically from their peak decades ago; in 2000, there were more than 1.6 million arrests. In fiscal year 2018, there were 396,579, which was lower than the average over the last decade and lower than in fiscal years 2016, 2014 and 2013.

In fact, the number of border apprehensions has fallen to the lowest level since 1971, according to There is also evidence that raw numbers of illegal immigrants living in this country has actually fallen from about 12.2 million in 2007 to 10.7 million.

Since he descended the golden escalator to warn about Mexican rapists, Trump has also continued to tie immigrants to crime. This is also misleading. As Politico noted:

But study after study has shown that immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than the general population. In a March study specifically focused on undocumented immigrants, University of Wisconsin sociologist Michael Light examined the relationship between illegal immigration and violence in 50 states and Washington, D.C., over a 24-year period ending in 2014 — a span that included the peak years for border arrests. His conclusion: “Undocumented immigration does not increase violence. Rather, the relationship between undocumented immigration and violent crime is generally negative.”

But, naturally, this has not stopped the administration or its supporters from insisting that we face a threat to national security. Pushed on the bogus terror number, Lewandowski fell back on insisting that we need a multibillion-dollar wall if it “saves even one life.”

This makes for a nice soundbite, but it is the precisely the kind of public policymaking that conservatives have resisted (and often mocked) for decades. Imagine, for example, the EPA or FDA adopting the standard that “one American life is too many” in promulgating new regulations.

Unfortunately, this has become the norm of Trumpism, in which anecdotes overwhelm statistics, and the president’s absurdist proposals override rational policy discussion. Over the weekend, the New York Times suggested that the whole idea for the wall was originally concocted by his brain trust of Roger Stone and Sam Nunberg as a way to get the notoriously undisciplined Trump to remember to talk about immigration.

As Mr. Trump began exploring a presidential run in 2014, his political advisers landed on the idea of a border wall as a mnemonic device of sorts, a way to make sure their candidate — who hated reading from a script but loved boasting about himself and his talents as a builder — would remember to talk about getting tough on immigration, which was to be a signature issue in his nascent campaign.

“How do we get him to continue to talk about immigration?” Sam Nunberg, one of Mr. Trump’s early political advisers, recalled telling Roger J. Stone Jr., another adviser. “We’re going to get him to talk about he’s going to build a wall.”

The mnemonic devise became an applause line at his rallies (along with the claim that Mexico would pay for it) and, most fatefully, an idée fixe with Ann Coulter & Co. who were enchanted by its blunt force crudity.

So here we are; facing a genuine crisis because of Trump’s non-crisis. The dangers of his impulsive decision to shut down the government continue to rise, and acolytes like Lewandowski are cheering on the notion of a wall by presidential fiat.  That could include what the president calls the “military version of eminent domain,” which means … God knows what? Armed soldiers seizing private property from American citizens?

All of that suggests that the “crisis” in not at the border, but sits in the Oval Office.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.