White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney made an apples-to-oranges comparison when he said he couldn’t understand why Democrats opposed supplemental funding for a border wall since many of them were for it back in 2006.
Mulvaney is referring to the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which called for construction of 700 miles of fencing and enhanced surveillance technology, such as unmanned drones, ground-based sensors, satellites, radar coverage and cameras. Sen. Chuck Schumer and then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were among a bipartisan majority that voted in favor of the legislation, and it was signed into law by President George W. Bush.
In a very general sense, the Democrats named by Mulvaney supported a bill to build more border fencing in 2006, and Trump is now asking for money to build a wall and fencing.
But the scope and political context of the two efforts are quite different.
Mulvaney raised the comparison during an interview on “Fox News Sunday” on April 23, when he was asked if Trump would risk a government shutdown by insisting a government funding bill include $1.4 billion to begin construction of his promised border wall. The possibility of a government shutdown is the result of a temporary spending bill passed by Congress last year that funds the government at its current levels only until April 28. A new funding bill needs to be passed by that deadline to avert a partial government shutdown, which would shutter many government services and agencies except for essential functions like the military, federal prisons and air traffic control.
Schumer and other Democrats said funding for the wall was a nonstarter, and they vowed to oppose a funding bill with that in it.
“We don’t understand why the Democrats are so wholeheartedly against it,” Mulvaney said. “They voted for it in 2006, then-Senator Obama voted for it. Senator Schumer voted for, Senator Clinton voted for it. So, I don’t understand why Democrats apply in politics just because Donald Trump is in office.”
“Actually, what I would say is that [Democrats] are holding hostage national security,” Mulvaney said later in the interview. “Again, something they’ve supported in the recent past when President Obama was in the Senate. So, we don’t understand why this is breaking down like this, and we are worried, Chris, that this is sending a message that this is going to be the next four years, that Neil Gorsuch was not just a one-off thing, the Democrats will oppose everything this president wants to do.”
Mulvaney’s charge that Democrats used to support the very wall Trump is calling for is not new. In fact, Trump raised that point with Clinton in the third presidential debate.
“Hillary Clinton wanted the wall,” Trump said at the Oct. 19 debate. “Hillary Clinton fought for the wall in 2006 or thereabouts. Now, she never gets anything done, so naturally the wall wasn’t built. But Hillary Clinton wanted the wall.”
Clinton responded, “There are some limited places where that was appropriate. There also is necessarily going to be new technology and how best to deploy that. But it is clear when you look at what Donald has been proposing. He started his campaign bashing immigrants, calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals and drug dealers, that he has a very different view about what we should do to deal with immigrants.”
A spokesman in Schumer’s office pointed out similar contrasts between the two plans. Trump during the campaign called for a 30-foot tall concrete wall for the length of the border. But the Secure Fence Act was “a bipartisan plan to strategically place clear-view, secure fencing that works hand in glove with surveillance technology. Democrats and Republicans have supported such policies in the 2006 Secure Fence Act and the 2013 bipartisan immigration reform law,” Schumer’s spokesman said.
“The contexts, I think, were different,” Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications at the Migration Policy Institute, told us via email. “Today’s discussion involves fencing off the entire 2,000-mile border while the earlier debate focused on adding significant (700 miles) but still limited miles of fencing at locations designated by DHS as necessary.”
The flow of illegal immigration has also changed dramatically since 2006, Mittelstadt said. When the Secure Fence Act was being debated in 2006, it was a time of surging illegal immigration. The peak in the unauthorized population was reached in 2007, Mittelstadt said, when it was estimated at 12.2 million people – a number that has since declined by more than 1 million. Total apprehensions of illegal immigrants along the southern border are also down, from just over a million in fiscal year 2006 to about 400,000 in 2016, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Mittelstadt noted that the political context is also vastly different, as some Democrats ceded to the Secure Fence Act as a political compromise to a Republican plan to criminalize all unauthorized immigrants, and to make it a crime to assist unauthorized immigrants.
“It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison,” agreed Edward Alden, an expert on immigration policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The Secure Fence Act was written in a way to get support from both sides,” Alden told us via email. “The Democrats, by and large, supported the use of ‘tactical’ fencing in high-traffic areas, something that the Border Patrol had long favored. Trump’s wall proposal seems to call for fencing the entire border, which Democrats have never supported.”
Part of the problem in comparing the plans is the difficulty in pinpointing what exactly Trump is proposing.
“We don’t know the specifics of what’s being proposed,” Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, told us in a phone interview. “It’s not exactly clear what type of fencing we’re talking about, and where. There’s a lot of ambiguity about what the plan entails.”
On March 17, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued two requests for proposals “to acquire multiple conceptual wall designs with the intent to construct multiple prototypes.” One RFP is for a “solid concrete border wall,” and the second RFP is for “other border wall.” For the “other border wall,” the RPF says: “Prototypes constructed in response to this solicitation must offer designs that are alternatives to reinforced solid concrete walls (i.e. no solid concrete external faces).”
The wall — whether solid concrete or an alternative design — must be between 18 feet and 30 feet tall and 2 feet wide, according to the RFPs. It also must go 6 feet below the ground to prevent people from tunneling under the wall.
There is currently quite a bit of fencing along the southern border, Wilson said, thanks in large part to the Secure Fence Act of 2006. But it is of various types, roughly divided between “pedestrian fencing” (seen here) — designed to stop foot traffic — and the less substantial “vehicle” fencing (seen here), which is designed to stop vehicles but can be walked through with ease. In the places where it makes the most sense to have fencing, Wilson said, there is some kind of fencing in place already.
As for the length of the wall proposed by Trump, the U.S.-Mexico border is 1,933 miles. But a Department of Homeland Security document obtained by Reuters indicated that the administration will not seek to build new barriers the full length of the border.
“The plan lays out what it would take to seal the border in three phases of construction of fences and walls covering just over 1,250 miles (2,000 km) by the end of 2020,” Reuters wrote on Feb. 9. “With 654 miles (1,046 km) of the border already fortified, the new construction would extend almost the length of the entire border.”
The ambiguity of what’s actually being proposed by Trump has also drawn Republican opposition.
According to a Wall Street Journal survey, “Not a single member of Congress who represents the territory on the southwest border said they support President Donald Trump’s request for $1.4 billion to begin construction of his promised wall.” (Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has since introduced a bill that would reserve any funds forfeited to the U.S. by Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to pay for “completion of the wall along the Southern border.”) Several Republicans told the Wall Street Journal they were concerned that Trump’s immigration policy focused too narrowly on building a wall, rather than a comprehensive immigration plan, or that border security funds would be more wisely spent elsewhere.
There’s another difference between the 2006 bill and what Trump is proposing. Trump has repeatedly promised that Mexico will pay for the wall. A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told the Wall Street Journal, “The White House’s demands that American taxpayers now foot the bill for a multi-billion dollar boondoggle are intensely opposed by Democrats and many Republicans.”
Not everyone agrees, however, that Democrats are not flip-flopping on the issue.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates for lower immigration, said that because the public doesn’t know exactly what border barriers the Trump administration wants to build, Mulvaney’s statement is not an “exact” comparison. But, he said, to dismiss it simply on that basis would be “tendentiously literal.”
“The fact is that, other than the ‘Mexico will pay for it’ stuff, Trump is simply channeling the 2006 Secure Fence Act, and Schumer et al. who voted for it out of political calculation are indeed hypocrites for opposing the attempt to finally bring that law to fruition,” Krikorian told us via email.
At the surface level, it is true in a broad sense that Democrats including Schumer, Obama and Clinton have in the past supported border fencing. All three voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and all three supported the 2013 Senate immigration overhaul that passed the Senate, and which called for tougher border security including some additional fencing. But to claim that those measures are the same as what Trump is proposing is a stretch.