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Standoff: Trump Wants $5 Billion For Wall, Democrats Offer $1.3B For Border Security


The political landscape of Washington, D.C., will look a little different starting today. A new Congress will be sworn in. Democrats will control the House. One of the first things they're expected to do is vote on a measure to end the partial government shutdown. But it may not go very far because President Trump is sticking by his demand for more than $5 billion of wall funding, and Democratic leaders have offered 1.3 billion for border security. That's it.

So this morning, we're going to talk about what the president is asking for, what he has promised and about how philosophical differences between the parties are keeping this shutdown going. I'm here with NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell in D.C. and NPR national correspondent John Burnett, who's down in Austin, Texas.

Good morning, guys.



KING: So Kelsey, let me start with you. The wall has been the issue for President Trump since Day 1 of his presidential campaign. Here he is the day he announced his candidacy.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I would build a great wall. And nobody builds walls better than me. Believe me. And I'll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border.

KING: It seems worth trying to remember. What was the president originally calling for?

SNELL: Well, that seems - that was it right there. That was one of his very first campaign promises was that they would build a wall. And it became a chant. And it was a - this idea of a physical barrier - right? - that you had something to physically show that the United States was getting tough on border security. It's also kind of one of those things that he reliably returns to when he's under political pressure. Since he's taken office, it has kind of come up over and over again when, you know, he's facing pressure on major fronts. And that's certainly the case now. When he's facing Democrats taking the House and the looming Mueller investigation and all of this turmoil in his Cabinet, this is a theme that we have heard all of the time.

KING: So first, back then, we're talking about an actual, physical wall. But over time, there have been some questions about, is this what we mean still - a concrete wall?

SNELL: Right. So the wall is a political promise in a lot of ways. And what Trump's stuck to until just a few weeks ago was that political promise. But when he started to mention metal slats, people started looking into it. And as far back as 2017, the Department of Homeland Security was asking for a request for proposals on two different options - one made of concrete and one that you could see through. Either way, it would be a physical barrier between 18 and 30 feet tall. And it would be set up to prevent people from going over. Oh, and it also has to look pretty good from the U.S. side of the border. They want it to be aesthetically pleasing (laughter).

KING: Aesthetically pleasing, OK. One of the other big promises was that Mexico would be footing the bill.

SNELL: Yeah. That's another campaign promise but one that started to kind of fade. But, you know, it was really one of those major applause lines at rallies. And at a press conference shortly before he was sworn into office, this is what he said about it.


TRUMP: I don't feel like waiting a year or a year-and-a-half. We're going to start building. Mexico, in some form - and there are many different forms - will reimburse us. And they will reimburse us for the cost of the wall. That will happen.

SNELL: Well, Mexico wants nothing to do with that, with building a wall. They have said that they aren't going to pay for a wall. And honestly, Trump has backed away from talking about Mexico paying for it. And that's how we got to where we are now, where Congress is debating how they might pay for it.

KING: And, Kelsey, just briefly, what exactly is the Democratic position on border security? - because the president regularly says they oppose adding security measures. They want open borders, which is false. What do Democrats want?

SNELL: They want border security in the form of sensors, drones and technology and training border agents. And that's something they want to keep working out. And that's why they have proposed a piece of legislation to reopen the government immediately for six of the seven portions of government that are closed right now and keep negotiating on the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees border security, for about a month.

KING: All right. Let's turn to NPR's John Burnett in Texas. John, the president wants a wall. What's there now?

BURNETT: Well, Noel, when the president talks about the urgency of a wall, remember that a third of the border is already covered by some sort of a barrier. You've got 700 miles down here covered with barrier. There are vehicle barriers in remote areas of the west desert and pedestrian fences, much of it - these 12 to 18-foot-tall iron bollard fences. You can see through them. They're very hard to get over. But this is the preferred construction style now, not concrete walls.

And remember. Most of the big border cities are already walled off from Mexico, like San Diego and El Paso and Brownsville. These used to be the most popular crossing points because undocumented immigrants could blend in with the urban population. But you - and you can't just talk about physical barriers. Customs and Border Protection has all this other technology. They've got video cameras mounted on poles. And they monitor them remotely - sensors buried in the ground and embedded in the walls, spy blimps tethered on the border, looking into Mexico and then, of course, some 16,000 agents stationed along the border, watching and tracking.

KING: What is the most effective thing at deterring migration?

BURNETT: Well, remember; illegal immigration is down 80 percent from its peak in 2000. And there are fewer and fewer incidents of old, chasing single males through the brush. What we're seeing is an uptick of families and children arriving, some in really large groups, at the border from Central America, asking for asylum. And the thing is that most people who cross illegally are apprehended not trying to evade the Border Patrol. They're looking for the green-suited agents to surrender to so they can ask for protection. And in the Rio Grande Valley down in the tip of Texas, the wall is not even right on the river. It can be a half-mile to a mile inland, so they're already in the United States before they even see the wall.

KING: John, the president has also said that construction on a wall has started and that there are construction crews working on...


KING: ...Parts of the border. Is that accurate? And does he deserve credit for it if it is?

BURNETT: Well, it's partially accurate, Noel. I mean, under last year's appropriation, there is quite a bit of construction going on, but most of it is replacement. For instance, in San Diego, they're replacing those old Vietnam-era landing mats with the steel bollards. In El Paso - I was there before Christmas. You can see crews replacing miles and miles of chain-link fencing, again, with these bollard walls. And then they're building about 30 miles of new border walls down in the Rio Grande Valley, much of it on top of an existing levee.

KING: And as you've reported before, of course, one of the big problems with the wall is the landscape down there, which is very varied. NPR's Kelsey Snell and John Burnett in Texas - thanks you guys.

SNELL: Thank you.

BURNETT: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.