On Tuesday, Donald Trump will step in front of the camera to do what he has often done on television: lie. This time, though, he will not do so as part of a reality show or an informal back-and-forth with the press. He will instead use a nationwide prime-time address, usually reserved for wartime, a real national calamity, or a historic occasion, to scare the American public into believing in an imaginary emergency on the southern border.
First and foremost, Trump will do so to try to untangle the government shutdown, a crisis of his own making that has begun to disrupt the lives of a growing number of Americans. He will lie about the responsibility of the Democratic congressional leadership in the current predicament. He will fail to admit that the burden of the impasse lies wholly on his shoulders because of his fixation with building a border wall. In doing so, Trump will disrespect the time and attention of the millions watching across the country simply to score political points.
The president will then proceed to tell a story about immigration in America. The speech, a carefully designed piece of propaganda and fearmongering, will paint a fallacious picture of a nation under threat. Trump will speak of Central American refugees who escaped poverty and unimaginable hardship as if they were barbarians storming the country’s gates. He will refer sloppily to gangs, terrorists, and shady foreigners. The threat, he will insist, has become so grave that he was left with no choice but to send thousands of U.S. troops to the border. He will praise America’s immigration-enforcement agencies as heroes in a war and stress the urgent need for a physical barrier between the United States and Mexico. Trump may then, reporting suggests, declare a formal national emergency. The situation has left him no other alternative, he’ll say.
He will be lying.
The southern border is not being overrun by undocumented immigration. Arrests at the border have dropped to numbers not seen since the early 1970s. Immigration from Mexico, in particular, has fallen to historically low levels. The number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has been declining steadily since at least 2007. Over the past 10 years, undocumented immigration has increasingly taken the form of visa overstays rather than unlawful border crossings. Immigrants are also putting down stronger, deeper roots in America. Almost 7 out of every 10 immigrants in the United States have been living here for over a decade, building peaceful and hardworking lives that affirm the American ideal and contradict Trump’s nativist demagoguery. When uprooted, their stories of deportation are harrowing.
Contrary to what Trump will likely say on Tuesday, the vast majority of those detained at the country’s southwest borders are not potential terrorists, drug dealers, or mobsters, but unauthorized immigrants, petty thieves, or drunk drivers, hardly deserving of a national emergency worth billions of dollars. There are not many gang members either. In 2018, Border Patrol agents identified 728 immigrants with possible gang affiliations, not insignificant but a number far less alarming than the supposed savage multitude Trump will lie about tonight. Contrary to the administration’s wild claims, border agents caught only a handful of immigrants classified in the terrorist database in the first half of fiscal year 2018, not the thousands the administration insists are threatening the country and crossing the border. And what about drugs? By the DEA’s own account, the solution to drug trafficking lies in more sophisticated and effective inspections across the border’s points of entry, not in the costly and unproductive erection of a wall.
The president, of course, could instead choose to level with the American people and describe the real challenges ahead for the country on issues like border security and immigration. He could say he will focus on less flamboyant but more sensible goals, like improving the border’s formal entry points, strengthening programs like E-Verify, or curbing visa abuse. He could also be frank about the real humanitarian crisis in the region and what America can do to help, an emergency happening more than 2,000 miles south of the border with Mexico, deep inside Central America. Trump could, for example, explain how the United States needs to embark in an ambitious nation-building project, not unlike the Marshall Plan, to rescue Central America’s Northern Triangle of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, where the vast majority of current emigration toward the United States originates. He could announce his intention to join the ambitious blueprint already laid out by the government of Mexico, which will invest over $30 billion over the next half-decade to improve conditions throughout the region.
Donald Trump could do all this, but he won’t. Instead, the president of the United States will barge into the country’s living rooms to wage an asymmetric political battle, unspool another chapter of his pernicious nativist narrative, and flat-out lie. Here’s hoping enough of those watching can see the stunt for what it truly is.