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.”