Trump Broke the U.S. Border Policy. Now He Owns It.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Jan. 11, 2018, Thomas Homan, then the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, appeared on “Fox & Friends” to discuss the Trump administration’s efforts on border security. The television program, a daily breakfast buffet of propaganda, featured a discussion of the political hypocrisy and policy failures of Democrats, the criminal dangers of sanctuary cities and the sad futility of legalizing undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Yet after a full year of Donald Trump’s presidency, there was also good news to report. “Under this president, we had a 45-year low in illegal immigration on the border this year,” Homan told his Fox hosts.

“That’s not a coincidence — he is successful,” Homan said of Trump. “We made a lot of good progress this year. We got a lot more to do. Let’s continue the work we’re doing.”

Here we are, however, only 15 months later, and Trump’s border is, by his own definition, a “crisis.” Migrants are stashed under bridge overpasses. Immigration courts overflow. The administration is busing migrants inland and setting them loose at Greyhound bus stations, expanding the practice that Trump had derisively called “catch and release.” And, of course, a child or two, perhaps a few hundred, have been misplaced along the way.

How did Trump’s “good progress” get derailed? Why is his border initiative no longer successful? Who stabbed the president and the people in the back?

Democrats, of course. Also judges. And Mexico. Central America, too. 

In reality, the administration has never had a viable plan. The Trumpists rode to the border eager to round up young men sneaking across. Instead, they encountered Central American families requesting asylum in record numbers. The administration restricted the number of people who can apply for asylum at ports of entry, forcing many back to wait in Mexico, and sought other ways to blunt the incoming flow while detaining those who crossed in harsh conditions.

As previous presidents learned, it’s not an easy problem to fix. But they all muddled through. The flow of Central American families had begun years before Trump took office. It was hardly a surprise. Perhaps if the U.S. had no laws, or news media, or decency, Trump’s policy of brutalizing families would’ve proved an effective deterrent. But given conditions in Central America, it probably would have failed no matter what. 

In testimony last month before Congress, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen blamed “outdated laws, lack of resources and bad court decisions” for effectively giving smugglers and traffickers “a free ticket into America." Under her tenure, Nielsen said without a hint of responsibility, irony or shame, “illegal immigration is simply spiraling out of control and threatening public safety and national security.”

Trump’s response was even more emphatic. He threatened to cut off aid to Central America, a move that, obviously, would only inspire more destitute migrants to flee north. Then, with all the skill of a poker player insisting he has five aces in hand, he threatened to close the border with Mexico, thereby killing $1.7 billion per day in cross-border trade.

As Bloomberg News reported: 

U.S. auto production would grind to a halt in a week, while pork producers and dairy farmers would be shut out of their largest export market. Grocery shoppers would quickly face shortages of avocados, tomatoes and other produce or steep price increases as supplies plummet.

It’s hard to say that Trump’s wanton cruelty is overemphasized. His administration has, by any reasonable definition, committed human-rights crimes by deliberately separating infants and young children from their parents, producing “toxic stress” that pediatricians compare to torture.

But in marveling at Trump’s cruelty, it’s easy to overlook his gross incompetence. The border is his signature issue, and yet even on this, his defining policy, he has no clue how to develop a realistic plan, enlist stakeholders, work with allies, measure results. He rages. He flails. He threatens. He retreats. Then he repeats the hapless cycle.

Some seem convinced that Trump is deliberately creating a crisis so he has something other than charges about his own gobsmacking corruption to talk about in 2020. There’s no doubt he will produce ample distractions.

But if the border crisis is a product of careful planning, where is the evidence of similar competence in this White House? Where is his wall? His North Korea breakthrough? Stupidity, ignorance, laziness, lies, corruption, incompetence — these are the usual suspects. If you’re looking to explain the inexplicable, you’ll likely find the answer there.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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