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Did Trump error by nixing border reform bill?

The GOP’s Border Self-Sabotage

If Trump wins, he’ll regret having urged GOP lawmakers not to enact reforms.


By Kimberley A. Strassel, WSJ

Feb. 8, 2024 6:05 pm ET


Watching Republican lawmakers sit idle as border havoc grows is a bit like watching the DC Universe dawdle as it waits for Superman to save the day. Only Donald Trump never wore tights, and the border is now kryptonite.


Sen. James Lankford (R., Okla.) this weekend unveiled the most substantive policy improvements to border security in a century. Don’t like “catch and release”? The bill largely stops it. Think the current low bar for claiming asylum—“credible fear”—is too easy? The bill would toughen it. Annoyed that President Biden has used “parole” authority to wave a million people through? The bill would end the worst abuses. It would provide money for more detention beds, more agents, a wall and vastly expedited hearings and deportations that promise to diminish incentives to claim asylum.


There was a day when Republicans would have jumped on such border restrictions. To listen to lawmakers’ refrain now, their jobs are no longer relevant. All they need is for Mr. Trump to return to the White House, where he will flash his cape and restore order. He did it before! Mr. Biden could do it now, if only he wanted to.


If only. True, Mr. Biden did have the tools to keep the border in check when he first took office, and today’s chaos is entirely of his making. He dismantled many of Mr. Trump’s most successful enforcement tools, while taking 535 executive actions, many designed to ease asylum claims. He simultaneously broadcast his plans for lax enforcement, inviting hordes to make the dangerous journey. Dismantle it, and they will come. And keep coming.


And that’s the problem: This combination of Biden policies has created a border beast large enough to bedevil the most capable future president. Mr. Trump’s annus horribilis for immigration enforcement was fiscal 2019, when there were caravans and 977,000 encounters. In fiscal 2023, there were nearly 2.5 million—five times the number in a typical Trump year. Meanwhile, what remains of an enforcement system is piecemeal, overworked, backlogged.


That 2019 number represents a painful fact, one the GOP ignores at its peril: Every modern president has struggled with border control, even in better times. Mr. Trump was no exception. In 2019—even with far fewer encounters, and with all his tools—Mr. Trump was forced to “catch and release” (yes, he did that too) 327,000 migrants into the U.S., eight times as many as were routed that year into his Remain in Mexico program (39,000). For comparison, Barack Obama’s catch-and-release numbers were 112,000 in fiscal 2016 and 77,000 in fiscal 2015.


Those figures also undermine claims that Mr. Biden could solve the problem by simply shutting down the border. The right to seek asylum is written into international and U.S. law, while the border facilitates hundreds of billions of dollars annually in trade, including of vital supply-chain materials. Mr. Trump threatened to shut the border several times while in office (and is again promising to do so), but there’s a reason he never fully closed it, allowing “essential” travel and trade even during the pandemic. A real shutdown would immediately be mired in legal battles, while sectors of the economy would take a massive hit.


Presidents can discourage migration by broadcasting that asylum bids will be arduous and unlikely to succeed. But Mr. Trump wouldn’t immediately—or ever—have access to some of the most valuable tools of his first term. The Title 42 public-health power to expel migrants went away when Congress ended the pandemic national emergency in 2023. The Remain in Mexico program was promising but required Mexico’s cooperation, which was reluctant. Mr. Biden shuttered its own scaled-back version of the program, and Mexico has its own reasons not to resurrect it.


Mr. Trump will inherit a problem that could well be insoluble without the sort of enforcement tools Congress is debating now. Here’s the catch: While they could pass now, they won’t under his watch. Should Mr. Trump win, Democrats will immediately oppose them, making it impossible to win the 60 Senate votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.


Not only do progressives prefer today’s immigration influx, they would be only too happy for Mr. Trump to own his own border disaster. His critics will also have the experience of his first term to greet his executive actions with maximum legal and political pain, to bind his efforts in court, and flood the zone with headlines about “cruel” family separations, kids in cages, squalid conditions.


Even Superman tried to have a plan, and most candidates banking on a nomination at some point consider what they will inherit and strategize accordingly. Would Mr. Biden use the tools in the Senate bill to maximum effect? Likely not. But consider what a Republican president could do with them, having for the first time in decades a new arsenal of enforcement provisions. Mr. Trump is doing neither himself nor his party any favors in deep-sixing his best shot at fulfilling the core GOP promise of border security.

Write to kim@wsj.com.

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