How Democrats Stopped Worrying and Learned to Accept Trump's Wall

Senator Chuck Schumer’s offer to fund the border wall as part of a deal on DACA did not come out of the blue: It reflects a shift in Democratic priorities on immigration that has been months in the making.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Vacuous and expensive. Pointless. Ineffective. Medieval. A non-starter.

Over the last year, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has used each of those words, and many more, to denigrate the proposed southern border wall that President Trump made a centerpiece of his campaign. Hamming it up on the Senate floor, Schumer frequently mocked the president’s demand that Congress front the money for a structure he repeatedly assured voters Mexico would pony up to build.

But on Friday afternoon, as the hours ticked away toward a government shutdown, Schumer went to the White House and told Trump he could have his wall. “The president picked a number for the wall, and I accepted it,” Schumer recalled in the midst of the shutdown. He had agreed to a significant sum of money for the wall—reported to be $20 billion, though the Democrat’s office will neither confirm nor deny that figure—in exchange for Trump’s support of permanent protections for the nearly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants covered under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The White House ultimately rejected the offer, and later that night, Senate Democrats withheld their votes for a stopgap spending bill, leading to the three-day shutdown. With the government reopened and an immigration deal still elusive, Schumer told reporters on Tuesday that his offer of wall funding was “off the table” because Trump had rejected his agreement.

But the fact that Schumer felt empowered to make such an enormous concession at all is reflective of a shift in thinking by Democrats and pro-immigration advocates over the last several weeks and months. That change has come both as the urgency to protect the young immigrants at risk for deportation has increased and in response to increasingly hard-line demands by Republicans and the Trump White House for restrictions in legal immigration and enhanced interior enforcement—policies that Democrats believe would be far more damaging to their cause than the construction of a wall.

“Lives are at stake and the lives of Dreamers are more important to me than bricks,” said Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, one of the House’s most outspoken Democrats on immigration reform. “If advocates would reject any money for Trump’s wall in exchange for freedom and legalization and eventual citizenship for the Dreamers, I understand their choice, but for my part, I would lay bricks myself if I thought it would save the Dreamers.”

“For me,” Gutierrez added in a statement, “the very real attacks on legal immigration are far greater threats than bricks and drones and technology on the border.”

Beyond a matter of priorities, the concept of a wall has become more palatable for Democrats as its imagined scope has shrunk. Aside from the occasional Trump tweet, no one at the highest levels of his administration or in the congressional Republican leadership is talking about building the kind of structure conjured by the president’s 2016 campaign rhetoric: a 2,000-mile version of the Great Wall of China. What Democrats once feared would be a hulking symbol of the nation’s inward turn has evolved into something much more pedestrian—some new physical barriers, certainly, but mostly the kind of fencing, drone technology, and non-wall infrastructure they’ve readily supported in the past.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican who’s spoken often to Trump about immigration, said in a recent floor speech that the president had referred to the Secure Fence Act of 2006, a law that passed with bipartisan support and called for nearly 700 miles of fencing along the southern border. “Well basically, we’re talking about the same thing,” Cornyn recalled Trump saying.  The semantics, Cornyn added, were less important. “Call it a fence. Call it a wall. Call it a barrier. Whatever you want to call it.”

Immigration-reform advocates have noticed the change.

“Trump himself has realized the wall does not mean bricks all along the border,” said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “I think all parties understand the difference between a symbol that sells and substance that secures.”

So although immigration-reform advocates denounced Schumer for giving up the shutdown without a DACA deal, they offered little protest of his offer to fund Trump’s wall. “The wall,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, “has become a metaphor for a border-security package that includes fencing, that includes technology, that includes roads and infrastructure, that includes accountability measures.”

In negotiations last year, Democrats offered their support for enhanced border security as long as it was explicit that the money would not go toward planning and constructing a new border wall. But as it became clear Trump would never make the same rhetorical distinction, they reluctantly moved off their position. “We’re pretty confident that the Congress is not going to appropriate billions and billions of dollars in year one to build a big concrete wall,” Sharry said. “We’re also pretty confident that whatever the border-security package that gets negotiated, Donald Trump will claim that he got billions and billions of dollars for a big, fat concrete wall.”

Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, had already agreed to $1.6 billion in initial wall funding as part of the agreement he struck with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and a bipartisan group of four other senators. After Trump rejected that deal, Schumer had been talking with fellow Democrats and immigration advocates about what they could accept beyond that in exchange for DACA protections. When he went to the White House on Friday, “[he] knew where Democrats were ultimately willing to land on a deal,” said a senior Senate aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the party’s internal deliberations.

The White House pushed back on Schumer’s description of his meeting with Trump. Officials have said Schumer only agreed to authorize the full amount Trump requested over several years, as opposed to the immediate appropriation the president wanted. If Congress authorizes but doesn’t appropriate funds, Democrats could conceivably withhold them if they won control of one or both chambers of Congress in November. The Democratic aide told me Schumer agreed to a “significant” immediate appropriation above the $1.6 billion the administration initially requested last spring, with the rest authorized over several years.

And despite Schumer’s withdrawal of his offer on Tuesday, it seems likely that wall funding will be part of whatever deal Democrats can strike in the weeks ahead.

The border wall is still a difficult conversation for Democratic lawmakers, aides, and activists—all of whom in statements and interviews made clear that they opposed its construction except as part of a generous deal for Dreamers. But their new willingness to consider it was also an acknowledgement that conservatives in Congress and the White House had succeeded in moving the terms of the DACA debate with proposals to reduce legal immigration, limit or end the sponsorship of family members, withhold federal funding for “sanctuary cities,” and make it easier for federal officials to swiftly deport undocumented immigrants.

“There are things that would have a much more immediate, giant impact,” said Philip Wolgin, the managing director for immigration at the liberal Center for American Progress. “Does it mean that the wall is okay and not a problem? No. And I want to be clear that I’m in no way saying that. But there are degrees of bad even among things that I think Democrats should hold the line on.”

For advocates like Wolgin, among the parade of horribles that Trump and his allies have proposed on immigration, the once-hated border wall has now become the easiest to accept.