I recently visited the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. I was inspired by being immersed in the story of what the founders of our country accomplished. These were people able to overcome their differences, put country first, and successfully fight for something worth fighting for. Unfortunately, a few blocks away, Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, and the Liberty Bell, a cherished symbol of our past, were closed to the pubic because our leaders of today cannot agree on how to fund the government.
Actually, they have reached agreements on virtually everything. The issue holding up funding the government is the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico. President Trump said that he would be “proud” to shut down the government over the wall and that the shutdown could last for a year or more. Democrats are adamant in insisting that the wall will never be built.
Why the wall has led to a shutdown of the government is somewhat puzzling. For those who are genuinely concerned about illegal immigration, there are other approaches that would be more successful. While the “caravan” at the border with Mexico has captured the attention of the media and politicians, the truth is that the majority of illegal aliens did not sneak across the border. They entered the country legally and overstayed their visas. When we leave Israel, we are required to show our passports at border control before boarding the plane. That is because Israel uses technology that makes it possible to determine both who has entered and who has left the country. In the United States, people are required to go through passport control when entering the country but not upon leaving. This means that we have no idea whether people whose visas expired have actually left. The use of technology similar to Israel’s would enable ICE to determine precisely which people have overstayed their visas and would be a far more effective tool in deterring and stopping illegal immigration.
Many illegal immigrants are able to obtain employment using forged documents. Mandating that all employers use E-Verify, a system that checks immigration status, would make it possible for employers to detect forged documents.
In truth, the most effective way to deter illegal immigration is an effective system of legal immigration. The prospect of being able to immigrate to the United States and to work here legally within a reasonable period of time would eliminate the incentive to cut the line by sneaking across the border or overstaying a visa. As our population ages, we will need more people of working age to pay into the Social Security system. Legal immigration would be one of the most effective ways to build up the working age population. An expedited system of legal immigration would allow us to admit prospective immigrants who will be an asset to our country and to keep out those who seek to do us harm.
Also puzzling is why Democrats are so adamant in opposing the wall. Even Democrats who want to allow all those who are in the country illegally to remain acknowledge the need for border security. In 2006, 26 Democratic Senators, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Chuck Schumer, voted for the Secure Fence Act, which provides for fencing along much of the border.
Much of the fencing along the border has already been built. The battle over the wall is essentially a battle over something that for the most part has already been built.
Why then the battle? The impasse between President Trump and Congressional Democrats over funding for the wall has nothing to do with the merits of the issue. “Build the wall,” was a focal point of President Trump’s 2016 campaign. For President Trump and Republicans, it is about implementing a central campaign promise and showing their supporters that they will not back down. For Democrats, it is about preventing President Trump from fulfilling that promise and showing their supporters, many of whom consider President Trump the embodiment of all evil, that they are doing everything they can to “resist” Trump. Both sides are willing to shut down the government over an issue that has aroused significant emotions on both sides but is of minimal practical significance.
There is a relatively easy way to get the government running again. It requires statesmanship rather than partisanship by both sides. The Democratic House has taken the first step by passing two appropriations bills. One would fund eight of the nine agencies impacted by the shutdown through the end of the fiscal year in September. This means that funding that has already been agreed to by the previous Republican-controlled House and Senate would be able to move forward. A second bill would fund the Department of Homeland Security for 30 days, giving negotiators time to reach a compromise over funding for the wall. There is a strong chance that both bills would be able to get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate if they are allowed to come to a vote. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, has said that he will not allow a vote on appropriations that the President will not sign. The Senate should pass, and the President should sign these appropriations bills that would allow the government to function. The proposed wall should be dealt with as part of a comprehensive approach to immigration that would address border security, the status of undocumented immigrants already in the country, and an orderly system of legal immigration that would preserve America’s role as a haven for the oppressed while keeping out those who seek to do us harm.
Little noticed in the impasse over the shutdown was some of the best news to come out of Congress in a long time. The rules for the operation of the House of Representatives were passed with bi-partisan support. This was possible because they included many of the proposals from the Break the Gridlock package proposed by the Problem Solvers Caucus, inspired by the No Labels movement. These rules will make it possible to bring legislation with bi-partisan support on issues like immigration, gun safety, and infrastructure to the floor for a vote. The Problem Solvers Caucus has already developed legislative proposals to deal with these and other issues. It is time for the President and Congress to rise to the occasion, to end the impasse over the shutdown, and to move on to addressing the challenges that face us. Statesmanship rather than partisanship is what will move our country forward. In the end, it’s the best politics, as well.
Manny Behar is the former Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council and was a senior aide to several public officials. He can be reached at email@example.com.