President Donald Trump seems determined to force a government shutdown over partial funding for his proposed border wall, and it is not hard to see why. As Mark Krikorian, the director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a restrictionist think tank, observed in an interview with The Washington Post, Trump is exquisitely sensitive to ridicule from those he sees as his staunchest supporters.
As Trump’s political standing diminishes, those on the restrictionist right who’ve put their faith in him have grown less admiring and more acerbic in their assessments. The columnist Ann Coulter, who some have identified as the inspiration for Trump’s own restrictionist turn, has gone so far as to denounce the president as “gutless” for his lassitude in building the wall, and she is far from alone. Forcing a shutdown would dramatize his supposed commitment to the wall, which, for a president deeply invested in appearances, is what matters most.
Yet when we leave appearances aside, the Trump administration has accomplished something that, in the long run, is of far greater consequence than securing a $5 billion down payment for a physical barrier that, for all its symbolic resonance, will have no appreciable effect on asylum seekers or visa overstayers, and will likely fail to deter the most determined clandestine border crossers. To the surprise of many observers, senior U.S. officials appear to have persuaded the Mexican government to shelter Central American migrants who are seeking asylum north of the border. This is, in essence, the “Remain in Mexico” plan that was being discussed in late November, shortly before the inauguration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—except the U.S. and Mexican governments are both insisting that this is not a formal agreement.