3 Simple Facts About the Shutdown

Border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, in a photo from early 2008. During a period of increasing gang violence in Mexico, and flows of guns from the U..S. into Mexico, artists had decorated the wall with gun images. For decades, population centers along the border have had sections of fence or wall. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today’s life-in-DC gazette: a little while ago I was in a line at a coffee shop with a middle-aged man, who from his accent I guessed (correctly) was from Nigeria. We talked while we were waiting. His was a standard life-in-our times story: He came to the US about 30 years ago. Now a citizen and small-business owner. Children all born here and in, or headed to, college. One of his nephews is a TSA screener at a DC-area airport.

“His rent was due on the 5th, man,” he told me,  of his nephew. “He covered that, but then he was counting on his normal paycheck tomorrow. That’s not going to come, and he’s got his credit card payments. And he has to keep showing up at work each day.” The man I was talking to said he assumed he might have to tide his nephew over through the shutdown.

We all “know” this is happening. But it can be easy to lose sight of how extraordinary and unfair it is. Not a single person within TSA—or the National Park Service, or the Food and Drug Administration, or the Census Bureau, or any other agency—has a single thing to do with the showdown over Donald Trump’s “wall.” But hundreds of thousands of them are being penalized and disrupted by what will soon be the longest shutdown in history.

It can also be easy to lose sight of three baseline realities of this abusive situation. Here’s the summary, with a few more details on each, lower down.

  • Reality one: As recently as three weeks ago, Donald Trump was perfectly willing to keep the government open and defer funding for his wall— until a right-wing chorus made fun of him for looking “weak.”
  • Reality two: Trump and his Congressional party never bestirred themselves to fund this wall back when they had unquestioned power to do so, during the era of Republican control of the Congress in 2017 and 2018.
  • Reality three: the U.S.-Mexico border has come under more control in recent years, not less. It’s been controlled by fences and walls in the busiest areas — as has been the practice for decades. The “crisis” is the politics of the issue, not its underlying realities.

Read on, for more details of each of the three. Or if you stop here, please keep those three points in mind.

A few more details, on facts that everyone knows but that can slip from sight in the froth of “both sides dig in” daily news updates.

  1. Donald Trump and the Republican Senate were perfectly willing to keep the government open, until the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh began mocking them as “losers” and “sell-outs.”

    You can read the specifics at the end of this piece, but the sequence is indisputable. On December 18, Mitch McConnell’s GOP-run Senate passed, on a unanimous voice vote, a “clean” funding measure, to keep the government open and postpone funding fights about “the wall.” They did so with guidance from the White House that Donald Trump would go along.

    Then the right-wing mocking began; then immediate funding for the wall became an “emergency”; then Trump preferred a shutdown to appearing to “lose.” Mitch McConnell’s GOP of course switched right along with him—and against the measure all of its members had supported just days ago.

    One man’s insecurity, and his party’s compliance, are disrupting millions of lives.
  2. During the two years in which Trump and the Republicans could easily have gotten funding for the wall, they didn’t bother to try.

    Through all of 2017 and 2018, Trump’s GOP held a large majority in the House, and a workable majority in the Senate. Trump and the GOP took care to ram through things they really cared about in that period, from Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Trump tax cuts.

    They didn’t bother to try for a wall. The supposed “emergency”didn’t matter when they had power to get their way. As Ezra Klein has argued, the most plausible explanation is that Trump doesn’t actually care about having a wall. He cares about being seen as fighting for it (as Ronald Brownstein has explained).
  3. The number of illegal crossings on the U.S.-Mexico border, like the percentage of undocumented residents and workers in the U.S., has been going down, not up. That’s not the tone of political talk, but it’s what academic and government research shows. For instance, consider this recent report from Pew.

    Border security is important, and for decades politicians of both parties have supported fences and walls in populated areas as obvious necessities. The photo at the top of this post, was taken near Tijuana 11 years ago. (The U.S. built the wall; Mexican graffitists provided the illustration.) When I did a big cover story for The Atlantic on immigration more than 35 years ago—yes, during Ronald Reagan’s first term, in 1983—I visited fences and walls in California, Arizona, and Texas.

    Walls themselves aren’t controversial. They’re part of what Republicans and Democrats have long recommended for stable controls at the border—and they’re part of what has made immigrant flows more rather than less manageable. The wall, a fantasized Maginot-style structure stretching 2,000 miles from the Pacific to the Gulf Coast, is different. That’s what Trump is pushing for—now that he no longer has a chance to get it.

People obviously disagree on  these issues. You could make a case for a much different approach to immigration than the one I might personally favor. But it’s hard to imagine a decent case for knowingly inflicting damage on hundreds of thousands of public servants, who have nothing  whatsoever to do with this issue and whose only mistake was to have chosen a vulnerable line of work.