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Two Border Emergencies, Very Different White House Choices

Message Dagmar Honigmann

Earlier this year, President Trump declared a national emergency and redirected over $6,000,000,000 to pay for lengthening the partly-built wall between the U.S. and Mexico. That diversion of funds that Congress had voted to spend on other matters was criticized as illegal on many grounds: The laws granting President Trump authority to transfer such funds had been created to let him respond to an unexpected crisis more quickly, without having to wait for Congress (which might not be in session at the time) - but Congress had just turned down a smaller request for wall funding by the President, so the need could not possibly be considered unexpected. Also, Congress had already turned thumbs down on the funding - and the law was also never meant to provide a slick way for the President to override the will of Congress. Finally, it was pointed out that people were sneaking across the border in far smaller numbers than in the late 1980s and 1990s - by the time President Trump took office, the number of people being caught by the Border Patrol in the current emergency had actually fallen by more than 80% compared with the number as recently as 2000. (And on the flip side, so many people who had been living in the U.S. without permission had been going home again that their numbers had also dropped sharply, by well over a million in the past decade.)

However, in what is an obvious contrast if we stop to think about it, the President chose not to declare an emergency after his get-tough efforts led to incredible overcrowding in the facilities housing refugees awaiting a chance to have their asylum claims evaluated and other migrants who had tried to immigrate illegally. People were standing on the toilet in one room that was designed for 125 but was holding 900. Others were being held in a pen set up under a bridge. A facility designed to house children for one to three days (until arrangements could be made to send them to waiting relatives in the U.S. or place them elsewhere) was so overwhelmed that several hundred children were sleeping on the floor there for up to several weeks. . . An inspection of that facility found several children who were so ill that they were immediately hospitalized, including one small child who had fallen unconscious without the staff noticing, and might have died like previous young children if the inspection hadn't happened or had been just a day later. Another sick and shivering baby had reportedly been sleeping on the ground outside for four days. There was urine on the floor. Guards reportedly were asking children as young as seven or eight to care for much smaller children.

President Trump could obviously have declared an emergency to deal with that situation - and I suspect Congress would not have opposed that, because it was clearly a crisis, it was clearly urgent, Congress had clearly not been anticipating it, and it would not be a blatant attempt to do an end run around a recent vote. Instead, though, the President waited months for Congress to try to arrive at a bigger funding and policy bill that both sides could agree on, when Congress was bitterly divided on various of the immigration-related policies and the Senate was also very busy with other business such as confirming judges. That was a choice by the President - he chose speeding up construction of a section of the wall at a time when illegal immigration had decreased to a small fraction of what it had been, rather than choosing obvious needs such as beds, soap and toothbrushes, child care, and medical care for thousands of children.

In addition to more funding to deal with the overflowing holding camps, more manpower was desperately needed to deal with everyone being held there. Small children were sleeping outside or being locked in enclosures for three weeks rather than three days, caked in dirt but going without showers for that long, asked at random to take care of toddlers, and in danger of dying because no one was occasionally checking on them when they fell ill.

Instead, the President redirected over 5,000 members of our armed forces to the border to guard it, and was considering sending another 10,000. Directing that much more manpower to the border (especially at a time when the number of people trying to cross was far lower than it had been in the past), rather than to help in various ways with the holding camps where children were freezing and even dying, was another choice. So was declaring that one of the biggest border crossings didn't have the resources to handle asylum applications from more than 50 refugees a day even though multiple groups of thousands were known to be on their way - if the 15,000 extra troops available for transfer to other spots on the border had been sent there instead, several could have been assigned to process each refugee in even the largest caravan.

We have seen not one but two border emergencies declared in the past year - and we have seen two opposite responses by the President, both in terms of funding and in terms of manpower. That contrast will be a part of our history books from now on, whether we like it or not. . .

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Dagmar Honigmann is in her sixties and has worked as a writer and educator. She is the daughter of German refugees who made separate middle-of-the-night escapes from East Germany after World War II, in her mother’s case with help from an (more...)
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