President Trump proclaimed his border wall “completed” Tuesday as he traveled to Texas to declare victory on a signature campaign promise, even if it had been scaled back and Mexico hadn’t paid for any of it.
Looking out over a section of wall in Alamo, Texas, the president warned President-elect Joseph R. Biden against trying to take down what already has been built and against unwinding his web of get-tough policies on immigration that he said are holding back a wave of migrants.
“They’re literally waiting — big, big groups of people,” he said.
Hours earlier, as he departed the White House for his first trip since last week’s attack on the Capitol, Mr. Trump said he considered the wall complete.
“As you know, we’ve completed the wall,” he said.
He changed his framing in Texas, where 450 miles have been completed but plans are in place to build about 300 more miles along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Much of that work is already under contract.
“We worked long and hard to get this done. They said it couldn’t be done, and we got it done,” the president said.
Perhaps his best-known 2016 campaign promise — “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall” — it was a compulsion for Mr. Trump through his time in office, encapsulating his triumphs and shortcomings on immigration writ more broadly.
He created a competition to model prototypes, personally visited the testing site and said he would have a hand in picking final designs.
He is battling in the Supreme Court to defend that money shift.
But as active as he has been on construction, analysts say, Mr. Trump all but ignored the second part of his pledge: to have Mexico finance the project. Instead, they say, American taxpayers have footed the bill.
“It seems ridiculous even to need to point this out, but not a dime of this has been paid by Mexico,” wrote Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group.
All told, a little more than $16 billion has been aimed at the wall.
Of that, $5.8 billion was approved by Congress, including $341 million in 2017 and $1.375 billion in each of 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Another $601 million was shifted from a Treasury forfeiture fund in early 2019. Some $6.3 billion is being tapped from the Pentagon’s counternarcotics funding, and $3.6 billion was shifted from the military’s construction fund.
During the 2016 campaign, the Trump team offered several ideas for getting Mexico to pay, including increasing fees on visas, cutting foreign assistance or tacking a fee onto remittances, which are funds paid back to home countries by migrants working in the U.S.
Over the first 10 months of 2020, Mexico received more than $33 billion in remittances, most of that from the U.S. and almost all of it in electronic payments. The theory was that a fee on each of those electronic transfers could produce billions of dollars.
By summer of 2017, as the prototypes were being built with money reallocated within the Department of Homeland Security, the president started suggesting that Mexico would “reimburse” taxpayers.
Mr. Isacson said he hasn’t heard of any significant income from the USMCA, and certainly not the billions of dollars it would take to cover the border wall cost.
That never came to pass.
“That mystifies me,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “I don’t know that there was any thinking there. That was just a lack of imagination. The White House staff and the House Republican leadership just dropped the ball.”
He said the administration should have tried, even if Congress shot down the idea.
Legislation was introduced in Congress to try to create income to pay for wall construction. Rep. Andy Biggs, Arizona Republican, proposed a wall trust fund that would have taxed remittances, increased the fee visitors pay on arrival, and cut foreign aid from countries based on the number of illegal immigrants from each.
That legislation never gained steam.
Failing to get Mexico to pay wasn’t the only immigration promise the president wasn’t able to deliver on.
He also vowed to end birthright citizenship, which conveys automatic status to almost anyone born on American soil, including children born to illegal immigrants and temporary visitors. Despite repeatedly saying he was planning an announcement, none came.
His attempts to rein in sanctuary cities also fell largely short. There are far more professed sanctuaries now than when he took office.
Mr. Trump also said during the campaign that he would nix the visa lottery, which doles out immigration passes based on luck of the draw, and would reduce the chain of family migration that is responsible for most legal immigration. Both of those promises fell victim to congressional negotiations.
Mr. Krikorian said the wall was an important part of the president’s plans, and the fact that it’s physical infrastructure makes it difficult to be unwound by a Biden administration. But he said the president could have done more to crack down on the jobs magnet that draws migrants in the first place.
Mr. Isacson, a critic of the wall, said it may slow down a migrant for 10 to 15 minutes, which is minor compared with the head start they have. It also is outweighed by the damage to fragile environments and American Indian sites.
Mr. Trump offered a different picture at the border Tuesday. He said illegal crossings and the flow of guns have plummeted where new wall has been erected.
“This is a real success story,” he said.
The president didn’t mention the cost of the wall but had fond words for Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whom he called “a great gentleman, friend of mine.”
Democrats on Capitol Hill tied Mr. Trump’s border wall to last week’s attack by pro-Trump forces on Congress. Two leading Democrats called it “the physical manifestation of the hostility he has fostered.”
“An egregious diversion of taxpayer money built around a pack of lies and intended mostly as a symbol of hate, the border wall represents everything that is wrong with the Trump administration,” said Reps. Rosa L. DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat and chair of the Appropriations Committee, and Lucille Roybal-Allard, California Democrat and chair of the subcommittee that oversees border funding.
Ironically, Congress tasked the Pentagon with erecting a 7-foot “non-scalable” security fence around its own perimeter in the wake of the attack. The fence, which the National Guard is building, is to remain in place for at least a month.
At the U.S.-Mexico border, the Army Corps of Engineers is shepherding construction.
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