Put Washington in a time-out. Bring in people who know something about the border.
If we really want to get serious about border security, it is time to put the Washington politicians in a timeout and bring in people who know what they are talking about.
At a closed meeting of senior House Democrats a couple of weeks ago, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) came up with an idea that had some promise: Why not ask the governors of the four states along the U.S.-Mexico border — who happen at the moment to be two Democrats and two Republicans — for their ideas of how best to spend federal money to make the border safer?
Her proposal has not gotten anywhere. But it — or some version of it — deserves serious consideration now that one partial government shutdown is over and another looms.
What is needed is an approach that goes beyond the immediate challenge before a conference committee of House and Senate negotiators. Their task, plenty difficult on its own, is to come up with a spending agreement that soothes President Trump enough to keep the government open past the next deadline, which is Feb. 15.
But they should also take this opportunity to find a more rational way to discuss border security, which is a goal that both parties say they want.
“The best policy is generated from facts and data,” Maloney says. “We need to get creative.”
The border-state governors, as Maloney noted, have an especially valuable perspective. Whether they would be willing to dive into the middle of this fight is another question.
More than 60 percent of the U.S.-Mexico border runs through Texas. But its Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has been noticeably silent about Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall.
Still, there is plenty of experience and expertise elsewhere that might be tapped in searching for consensus on border security.
One possibility: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could each appoint a set of experts to a bipartisan commission, give them three months to analyze the security needs at the border and ask them to prioritize how $5.7 billion should be spent to address those problems. Then, the two congressional leaders could pledge to put their proposal in its entirety to an up-or-down vote in each house of Congress, negating the possibility that it could be picked apart in yet another round of partisan squabbling.
It is easy to dismiss a blue-ribbon-commission approach as simply punting an intractable problem. But similar approaches have worked in the past, notably in the early 1980s, when a bipartisan commission helped bring Congress together to make the Social Security system more solvent.
To work, such a panel would have to have credible, balanced leadership — co-chaired, say, by Doris Meissner, who was commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton, and Michael Chertoff, who was secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush.
One of the most beneficial things a group of experts could do is define what problems truly exist at the border. Is there a crisis? And if so, what kind of crisis?
It is not the one that Trump claims, with the outrageously inflated — and suspiciously precise — numbers he tweeted Sunday: “We are not even into February and the cost of illegal immigration so far this year is $18,959,495,168. Cost Friday was $603,331,392. There are at least 25,772,342 illegal aliens, not the 11,000,000 that have been reported for years, in our Country.”
In fact, as measured by the number of people crossing illegally, the border has become much tighter than it used to be. Apprehensions in recent years have been running at roughly a quarter of what they were at their peak, around the year 2000.
But there are long-standing problems, with obvious solutions. Stemming the flow of illegal drugs, most of which are smuggled through legal checkpoints, calls for greater manpower and more sophisticated detection. And yes, physical barriers have a role as well, as they have for decades.
Meanwhile, there is a newer challenge, with the arrival of record numbers of families and unaccompanied children seeking refuge from violence and poverty. The Trump administration’s response, which has been to narrow the means of applying for asylum and tighten the criteria, has served only to sow more chaos at the border, which will worsen with a newly implemented policy that forces migrants to wait in Mexico as their claims are processed in U.S. courts.
So does Congress really want to do anything about border security? If so, the two parties must stop talking past each other. And if the politicians cannot do it, it is time to bring in someone else to make a try.