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World Trump says there’s a ‘crisis’ at the U.S.-Mexico border and his wall will fix it. Here’s a reality check

Tijuana, Mexico, Jan. 7: A man walks along a road next to the U.S.-Mexico border, where U.S. President Donald Trump plans to build a wall to keep migrants out.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump made building a wall with Mexico the signature promise of his presidency. Now a political showdown over funding for a border wall has pushed a partial government shutdown into its third week.

The two sides appear to be far from striking a budget deal to reopen the government. Mr. Trump is demanding US$5.7-billion for a border wall. Democrats, who assumed control of the House of Representatives last week, are offering US$1.3-billion for border security, but no money to build a wall. Mr. Trump has said he’s prepared to declare a national emergency to fund a wall without the approval of Congress. He made his case for a crisis at the border in a televised speech Tuesday night and plans to travel to the border in South Texas on Thursday.

Here’s what you need to know about the border wall battle that will likely to define the next two years of Trump presidency – and potentially the 2020 presidential elections.

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On the U.S. side of a border fence in Tijuana, prototypes of Mr. Trump's wall have been erected. On the other side is Mexico's Baja California state.

GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images


How much wall has already been built?

The U.S-Mexico border that Mr. Trump inherited when he took office already included 1,052 km of border fencing. Much of it was built or funded under former president George W. Bush. Of that, 570 km is the kind of fencing meant to stop people from crossing the border on foot. The rest is in remote sections of the border and made up of barriers designed to stop vehicles but not pedestrians.

Mr. Trump has said that “tremendous amounts of wall have already been built” since he took office. In reality, the Department of Homeland Security has upgraded 50 km of existing wall with newer materials, but so far the border fence remains the same size as it was two years ago. Congress has approved funding for 156 km of new border wall and contractors are set to start construction on the first expansion of the border fence under the Trump presidency – 22 km of steel fencing in South Texas – next month.

barrier status along the

u.s. southern border

In kilometres

Total length

of border

3,126

Barrier already

in place

before Trump

1,052

US$292-million re-

placement barrier

approved by Congress

in Calif., N.M., Texas

199

Replacement barrier

already started

or completed

64

Replacement barrier

to be completed

by May 2019

22.4

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: associated press;

new york times

barrier status along the

u.s. southern border

In kilometres

Total length

of border

3,126

Barrier already

in place

before Trump

1,052

US$292-million re-

placement barrier

approved by Congress

in Calif., N.M., Texas

199

Replacement barrier

already started

or completed

64

Replacement barrier

to be completed

by May 2019

22.4

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: associated press;

new york times

barrier status along the u.s. southern border

In kilometres

Total length

of border

3,126 km

Barrier already

in place

before Trump

1,052

US$292-million re-

placement barrier

approved by Congress

in Calif., N.M., Texas

199

Replacement barrier

already started

or completed

64

Replacement barrier

to be completed

by May 2019

22.4

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: associated press; new york times


How much wall does Mr. Trump want to build and how much is actually needed?

During his election campaign, Mr. Trump said he intended to build at least 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of wall along the Mexican border. More recently he has asked for 500-600 miles (800-965 km) of wall “either renovated or brand new” before next year’s presidential election. Department of Homeland Security officials have said Mr. Trump’s request for more than $5-billion in new funding to end the shutdown will fund roughly 234 miles (377 km) of new border-wall construction.

But security experts and even internal Border Patrol estimates suggest that actual amount that’s needed on the border is likely much smaller. Michael Fisher, former head of Border Patrol until 2015, told The Globe and Mail in 2017 there were fewer than 100 miles (160 km) of the U.S.-Mexico open border where it made sense to build additional fencing.

Last year, former senator Claire McCaskill, who was the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released a report analyzing internal Customs and Border Patrol. Of the more than 900 requests from front-line agents in 2017, only 5 per cent mentioned a fence or a wall. Most requests were for new road construction, more manpower or additional technology.

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Near Guatemala City, Dec. 25, 2018: A boy carries a picture of Jakelin Caal, a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl, at her funeral. Jakelin died in a Texas hospital after being taken into custody by U.S. border-patrol agents in the New Mexico desert.

JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Is there a national security crisis at the border?

The White House has described the Mexican border as a “crisis situation,” but Border Patrol statistics tell a different story.

The number of people caught crossing the border illegally has plummeted 75 per cent since its peak in 2000. Last year, border agents apprehended 396,000 people, up 30 per cent from the previous year – when border arrests hit a 46-year low.

Agents have also gotten better at policing the border. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that the number of people believed to have slipped into the United States undetected plunged 93 per cent between 2006 and 2016.

What has changed, however, is who is trying to cross the border. The number of families and unaccompanied children from Central America has soared in recent years, now making up more than half of those detained at the border. The majority have come to seek asylum in the United States, a process that can take years to wind its way through the courts.

White House officials cited the threat of terrorism as a reason to build a wall, saying that border agents have stopped thousands people from countries that harbour terrorist groups from entering the United States through Mexico. The claim contradicts reports from the U.S. State Department last year that found “there was no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States.”


Could Mr. Trump force Mexico to foot the bill?

Even as Mr. Trump has demanded Congress pony up for the wall, he has continued to falsely insist that Mexico is paying for the barrier through the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). In fact, there is no provision anywhere in the USMCA or in any of its annexes or side letters for Mexico to pay for the wall.

It is possible Mr. Trump believes that, because the USMCA is meant to lower the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico, this lower deficit would somehow constitute “payment.” But this is also false. As far back as the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump suggested that Mexico would “pay” for the wall through a cut to the trade deficit.

“We have right now a $58-billion trade deficit with Mexico. That’s why the wall gets built, by the way. That’s why they’re going to pay for it,” he said in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Feb. 29, 2016.

USMCA, which is a rejigged version of the North American free-trade agreement, contains new rules meant to push new auto manufacturing plants out of Mexico and into the United States. Mr. Trump’s hope is that this will reduce the trade deficit. But even if the trade deficit goes down, this does not mean the U.S. government will receive more money. It only means that fewer goods will be shipped from Mexico to the United States. A lower trade deficit does not necessarily correlate with more economic growth. In fact, imposing more rules on business and making trade harder can mean less economic growth, more expensive consumer goods – and less government tax revenue to build things such as the wall.


President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House on Jan. 6, 2019.

SARAH SILBIGER/The New York Times News Service

Can Mr. Trump actually declare a national emergency to pay for the wall?

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Yes, he can. Presidents have broad discretion to declare a national emergency, which opens up new legal powers and sources of funding – including the ability to deploy the U.S. military domestically and repurpose military spending for construction projects that could potentially pay for a wall.

Congress could intervene to end the state of emergency, but that would require a two-thirds majority vote in both House and the Senate, an unlikely scenario in a divided congress, said University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck.

Still, any attempt to start construction on a border wall will likely spark a flurry of court challenges, including from property owners along the border whose lands the federal government may try to seize to build a wall.

"It just seems hard to see how he actually gets a wall built,” said Matt Dallek a political historian at George Washington University. “It could drag on in the courts for months or years."

A man walks along the border wall in Tijuana.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

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