What Could Democrats Get in Return for President Trump’s Dumb Wall?

A thought experiment.

An excavator removes a fence, which will be replace by a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall at Sunland Park, U.S. opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, August 26, 2016.
An excavator removes a fence to be replaced along the U.S.-Mexico border at Sunland Park, New Mexico, opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Aug. 26.

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

Donald Trump is the wall, and the wall is Donald Trump. It is the organizing principle of his campaign, his monument to victory. He speaks of it as if it were the God of the Old Testament, true and righteous altogether. It is to be an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful Southern border wall,” as Trump put it Wednesday night in his speech, the first plank of what at this moment he is calling his immigration plan. It is the lodestar of his campaign. Whatever softening he undergoes from now until Election Day, his base won’t care so long as he doesn’t waver on the wall. “We’re getting a wall,” Ann Coulter said last week, when Trump appeared to be waffling. “We’re definitely getting a wall. That’s the one thing we know about a Trump presidency.” If Trump becomes president, his top priority will be the wall. He has to get it. He will do anything.

For the Democrats, the wall is what you might call an opportunity.

The wall is not a good idea. Its potential effect on desert ecosystems is troubling. Much of the Southern border is a vital river. Billions of dollars in daily commerce is conducted along the border. How is all of this negotiated? The wall in some measure would need to be penetrable and porous. And then there’s the complete inefficacy of the wall. It certainly wouldn’t do anything about visa overstays. The requisite sensor technology to detect subterranean tunnels isn’t there yet. Since Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, either directly or indirectly, the cost of construction and maintenance would be some tens of billions of dollars.

But there are worse things to waste money on than mostly ineffectual federal construction projects that pay out sweet, sweet Davis-Bacon wages. If—if!—the environmental and commercial problems with the construction of a wall can be mitigated reasonably enough, Democrats would be holding an ace. Other central demands from a more conventional Republican candidate might include Democratic nonstarters like massive tax cuts for the wealthy, repeals of the Affordable Care Act or Dodd-Frank, or the Ryanization of Medicare and Social Security. Trump would just want a construction project, a physical bulwark, along the Southern border. Well … sure?

Publicly, at least, Democrats would need to be not sure. They would need to go on, as they’ve been doing, about how a wall is inconceivable. And then Sen. Chuck Schumer could just let the offers roll in as Trump tries to secure the cornerstone of his campaign against either Senate Democratic majority obstruction or Senate Democratic minority filibuster. The good(?) thing about Trump is that he has no ideological principles, would make offers to Democratic leaders straight over the head of House Speaker Paul Ryan, and then would whip in line Republicans who wouldn’t want to embarrass their new president on his first major legislative effort.

So what’s the right vehicle?

Trump is open to a mammoth infrastructure spending bill paid on borrowed money, which would make for sensible logrolling: Republicans get the wall in exchange for Democrats getting basically all of their infrastructure priorities. Or Democrats could go off-topic: the wall, in exchange for a public health insurance option or some other package of Affordable Care Act tweaks, an expansion of Social Security benefits, paid leave—you pick.

The most obvious option, though, would be to trade the wall for other immigration-related provisions.

Trump would say he wants a wall. Democrats would ask for a path to citizenship for noncriminal undocumented immigrants. Trump would then ask for triggers on the path to citizenship pending certification of border security, which would also have to include a doubling of Border Patrol agents. Democrats then ask whether the “wall” needs to be a wall and can’t instead just be double-sided fencing. Trump agrees and asks for the funding to complete the already-authorized 700 miles of fencing, plus maybe a few hundred miles more, along with at least some ceremonial, symbolic portion of actual wall-wall on which could be emblazoned Trump’s name. Democrats ask in return for an expedited citizenship process for DREAMers, and Trump pushes for full expansion of a nationwide E-Verify system. While they’re doing this, they figure, they might as well throw in fixes to legal immigration and various broken visa programs, with input taken from both big business and labor groups.

And then both Democratic leaders and the Trump administration would sell to their respective bases the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013—er, 2017—but this time with one mile of impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful wall, and the most terrific gold trimming you’ve ever seen.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.