Statement Of Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) On The Fearmongering Falsehoods Fueling President Trump's Fixation On the Wall: A Reality Check

If Americans had any doubt that President Trump is fixated on wasting billions of dollars to wall off our 2,000 mile southern border, all they had to do was watch his jaw-dropping press conference yesterday, demanding another $5 billion of their hard earned tax dollars for his political pet project that he promised Mexico would pay for.

Using words I never thought I would hear from a President, he boasted he would be, “proud to shut down the government” if Congress doesn’t meet his funding demands.  That is one of the most reckless statements I have ever heard uttered by a President of the United States. 

His job, like ours, is to keep the federal government operating for the hundreds of millions of Americans who depend on government services every day, from our national parks, to housing services for the elderly, disabled, and our veterans, and for assistance for our nation’s farmers.  Just yesterday, we passed the bipartisan Farm Bill.  If the President shuts the government down, there will be nobody in local USDA offices to answer questions from farmers about what the law means for them – just as farmers begin to make their plans for next year’s planting season.   

When I first came to the Senate, the idea of threatening to shut down the federal government as a negotiating tactic was unheard of.  Today, it seems that we go through this every year.  Neither party is blameless.  But before President Trump, no one bragged about it.  No one seemed to relish it.  No one was foolish enough to call it good for the country.  No one treated shutting down the government as if it is a game, without the slightest concern for the consequences for the American people and hundreds of thousands of federal workers and their families over the holidays, or for the millions of dollars wasted as a result.

President Trump’s performance yesterday amounted to throwing a temper tantrum on live national television.  He is either oblivious to or simply doesn’t care about the real world consequences of a shutdown – including hundreds of thousands of federal employees furloughed, or working without pay three days before Christmas, and millions of Americans cut off from critical government services.  Instead the President eagerly offered to “take the mantle” for shutting down the government over his wall.

What could be driving his fixation with a medieval wall along our southern border?  Maybe he has actually begun to believe his own fearmongering and lies about migrants, asylees, and refugees.  After years of demonizing and vilifying vulnerable migrants to rally his most ardent supporters, perhaps President Trump’s own demagoguery has finally gotten to him.  Only that – a self-made, alternate reality where vulnerable women and children have miraculously transformed into hordes of gang members and terrorists – could explain such an irrational obsession with a wasteful wall that would do next to nothing to stop actual threats to our nation’s security.

The President may not be able to tell fact from fiction, or he may purposefully be blurring the lines between them.  But as Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, it is my duty to ensure that taxpayer dollars go toward solving problems we know to exist in fact.  So let’s talk about the facts.  It’s time for a reality check. 

President Trump, justifying a litany of anti-immigrant policies, has repeatedly claimed that there is a crisis at our southern border, with a “drastic surge” of undocumented migrants attempting to flood into our country.  That is false.  The truth is that illegal border crossings are at historic lows.  At the end of 2017, arrests of people attempting to enter the U.S. illegally dropped to the lowest level since 1971.  Between 2000 and 2018, border apprehensions fell sharply from roughly 1.6 million in FY 2000 to approximately 400,000 in FY 2018 – that is a 75 percent drop.  While everyone agrees that illegal immigration is a serious problem we need to address, saying that we are experiencing a crisis-level surge of illegal crossings at the border is pure fiction.     

Without a true crisis to point to, the President has manufactured one.  Ever the reality TV showman, he opted to focus Americans’ attention on images and videos of a “caravan” of migrants marching toward our southern border. In the run-up to the recent elections, pointing at these vulnerable migrants when they were still nearly a thousand miles from our border, President Trump immediately began warning of an imminent “onslaught” of “invaders,” an “assault on our country,” and a “national emergency.”  Inconveniently for the President, thousands in the migrant caravan are defenseless women and children.  Most Americans just don’t think of the word “invaders” when they see barefoot toddlers being pushed in strollers by their mothers.  The sad reality is that many of these people are fleeing desperate situations in their home countries looking for sanctuary – they aren’t coming here to perpetuate violence, they are running from it. 

When the pictures on TV began to defy the President’s narrative, he changed course and began making the case that hidden amongst these families were “stone cold criminals” and “unknown Middle Easterners,” as if anyone from the Middle East is inherently a danger to us.  His proof?  He has none.  Quoting the President’s own words about the composition of the migrant caravan: “There’s no proof of anything.”

Just yesterday, President Trump even claimed that “we need the wall” because we recently “captured 10 terrorists” over a “very short period of time.”  This statement had fact-checkers – and his own administration officials – scratching their heads, as its provenance was entirely unclear.

A Homeland Security official claimed that President Trump was referring to a government statistic indicating that 10 people suspected of terrorist ties are prevented from entering the United States every day “by air, sea, or land.”  But a wall along our southern border would do nothing to prevent a suspected terrorist from flying into the JFK airport.  President Trump does not seem to know, or care, about the difference.

The conservative Center for Immigration Studies issued a report last month concluding that only 15 suspected terrorists have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border since 2001, and a “suspected terrorist” includes anyone coming from one of a handful of specific countries, like Syria.  It does not mean they are in fact terrorists or have any connection whatsoever to terrorism.

President Trump’s unsubstantiated vitriol against immigrants is matched only by his flamboyance about the wall.  Despite his claims yesterday that wall construction is under budget, the largest component of fencing that Congress has funded, a 25 mile barrier in the Rio Grande Valley, has ballooned in cost, from $445 million to $787 million – a price tag of $31.5 million per mile for American taxpayers.  And despite the President’s claims that additional wall funding is an urgent need, the Trump Administration has only spent six percent of the $1.7 billion the Congress has appropriated over the last two years to build or replace fencing on the southern border.

Facts matter, Mr. President.  The $5 billion he is clamoring for would be better spent on real homeland security – such as Coast Guard boats that can save lives, grants to nonprofit churches and synagogues to secure themselves against shootings like those in Pittsburgh and Sutherland Springs, and for more Customs personnel and technology to seize the fentanyl that is fueling our nation’s opioid epidemic and killing our citizens.  And let’s remember, fentanyl is mostly coming through our legal points of entry and our mail facilities, not between the ports where the President wants to build his wall.    

Perhaps in President Trump’s alternate reality – where illegal crossings are at historic highs, migrant caravans of hardened criminals are invading our country, and terrorists are slipping past our border patrol agents every day – the need for a giant, concrete wall seems like an urgent necessity.  But if you live in the real world – where facts and statistics mean something – his obsession with building a wall is exposed for what it is: a desperate attempt to please his base and protect his ego.

As stewards of American taxpayers’ hard-earned money, we in Congress have a responsibility to not throw away billions of dollars on a project that is built on a foundation of fact-free fearmongering.  That is not the way we appropriate money, and that is certainly not the way we fund and run the United States government.  If the President wants to shut down the government because he cannot muster the votes to fund his shiny object, as he says he does, the American people will see that he cares more about his misguided campaign promises than he does about doing his job:  making the government work for the American people. 

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CONTACT: Jay Tilton 202-224-2667