Top White House officials were delighted last weekend when a Washington Post story, a reported piece from the paper's immigration and national security reporter, said there is "a bona fide emergency on the [U.S.-Mexico] border" and that "record numbers of migrant families are streaming into the United States, overwhelming border agents and leaving holding cells dangerously overcrowded with children."
That is precisely the point the administration has been trying to make lately. Could anyone in the White House have said it better?
The problem is, as much as officials from President Trump on down proclaim a "crisis" on the border, the Democrats who control the House don't believe it. Nor do the Democrats who control enough of the Senate to block the president's border barrier proposal and other initiatives.
Now, with his address to the nation and efforts in the next few days, Trump must convince Americans that the crisis exists. The president will argue that there is a two-part crisis at the border, a humanitarian crisis and a national security crisis. If Trump can make the case, he will have a chance of winning the shutdown standoff with congressional Democrats. If he can't, he'll lose.
To win, the administration must convince Americans that the situation at the border has changed dramatically and that the Democrats' solutions, rooted in an out-of-date understanding of the problem, will not work.
To do that, officials will have to begin by explaining that the most frequently cited statistics about illegal border crossings simply do not tell the story of what is happening today. At a White House meeting Monday, Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tried to do just that.
Nielsen handed out a chart from the Border Patrol on border apprehensions each fiscal year since 2006. In the first year, agents caught 1,071,972 people trying to cross into the United States illegally. The next year, the number went down to 858,638. Then 705,005. After that, the numbers bounced around. There were 327,577 apprehensions in 2011, and then 479,371 in 2014. The number fell to a low of 303,916 in 2017, Trump's first year in office. It rose to 396,579 in 2018. Nielsen's chart included a dotted line which projected the number to rise dramatically to 600,000 in 2019.
Even if that turns out to be the case, 600,000 apprehensions would be fewer than the numbers from the final years of the George W. Bush administration. And that is supposed to mean there's a crisis now?
Yes, said Nielsen and Pence, who argued that something very new and alarming is happening. The old figures were mostly unaccompanied adults whom U.S. authorities could quickly return to Mexico. Now, those coming are adults with children who according to U.S. law cannot be held together, cannot be separated (that proved a political disaster for the administration), and, most importantly, cannot be quickly returned to Mexico or their home countries.
"The makeup of the flow is different," Nielsen explained. "Some Democrats will say that when the flow was really bad, it was in the millions. But the point is that the flow has substantially changed. Two-thirds of the flow is now made up of families and unaccompanied children. That's not only in the humanitarian crisis portion, it's also the rule of law, because under our current laws we cannot retain and remove them. So they are here."
The problem on Capitol Hill, Nielsen explained, is that lawmakers look at the problem as if it is unchanged from a decade ago. "It's getting worse," she said. "It's not the status quo, so Congress's reaction of 'Let's just do it like we always do it' is not going to work. This requires something different. The laws are outdated and the resources are outdated."
To that end, the administration is requesting not only $5.7 billion for construction of 234 miles of new and replacement barriers on the border, but hundreds of millions for more immigration judges, law enforcement officers, detention beds, medical resources, and technology for the border. Trump officials also want to see changes in the law that would make it practical for minors in Central America to apply for asylum in their own country and not in the United States.
All of that requires congressional action, and much of it — the barrier, specifically — faces determined Democratic opposition. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly declared a border wall "immoral" and has taken a what-part-of-no-do-you-not-understand stance toward the president. Some other Democrats are not quite as obstructionist as Pelosi, but opposition to the barrier is widespread.
Still, administration officials are trying. Pence described his weekend meetings with Democratic staff as useful, if not much more. "We considered the meetings productive," he said Monday. "That's not to imply that there was progress made." The value of the meeting, Pence said, was that both sides came away with a better understanding of the other's position.
The fundamental problem Trump, and Pence, and the rest of the administration faces is the old understanding of things. If people don't believe the border situation has fundamentally changed, they won't believe there is a crisis. And if they don't believe there is a crisis, they won't support the administration's proposed solution.
"Things really have gotten a lot worse in the last year," Pence said. "They got better right after the election, frankly probably because of the thundering voice of our new president. His thundering voice probably diminished the enthusiasm of people south of the border to try, but eventually the human traffickers, the cartels, said, 'You know what? All the loopholes are all still there. Every opportunity to go disappear into the United States is is still there.' And so now we've seen this precipitous rise of unaccompanied minors and families."
President Trump joined the meeting for a while. White House officials specified that his remarks were off the record, but they were entirely consistent with what Pence and Nielsen had said, with the addition, of course, of the president's unique rhetorical style. Trump seemed fully aware of the job he faces and determined to make the case. The success of his signature campaign issue, the border, rides on the next few days.