The real reason Trump is sending troops to the Mexican border

  • Attempts to cross the U.S. illegally or without proper documentation are up more than 200 percent in March compared to the same month last year, though only to more normal levels.
  • But that's not driving Trump's decision to send in the National Guard.
  • The White House is bracing for electoral Armageddon come November.
File photo of National Guardsmen watching the Mexico border.
Mary Knox Merrill | The Christian Science Monitor | Getty Images
File photo of National Guardsmen watching the Mexico border.

President Trump signed a memorandum to dispatch the National Guard to the southwest border last Wednesday. The associated memo justified the move by claiming that the "security of the United States is imperiled by a drastic surge of illegal activity on the southern border."

What surge is this? To be sure, attempts to cross the U.S. illegally or without proper documentation are up more than 200 percent in March compared to the same month last year. The 'Trump effect', which had intimidated migrants from attempting a crossing in the first months of the current administration, reached its full force in April of last year, but has faded since. Crossings have returned largely to normal levels.

Those drawn by the strong U.S. economy can be added as well. Border jumping has typically been driven by job opportunities in the U.S., and with labor shortages now emerging across the country, the incentive to come north for work is compelling. Consequently, according to Border Patrol data analyzed by my firm, we anticipated that 2018 would see one of the highest years for illegal immigration in this decade, and to date the numbers are largely in line with expectations. Nevertheless, there is no 'drastic surge', merely a recovery of normal crossing volumes adjusted for strong labor demand in the U.S.

Source: US Customs and Border Patrol, Princeton Policy forecast

As for drug trafficking, the administration would be well-advised to take credit for collapsing marijuana smuggling, which is the real story. From a 2009 high of 3.8 million pounds confiscated by Border Patrol in the field (as opposed to at official crossing points), we anticipate seizures to fall to 0.6 million pounds this year, a reduction of 84 percent.

The key driver of the collapse is the legalization of recreational marijuana, at first in Colorado and more recently in California, which has allowed domestic production to displace Mexican imports. As the U.S. industry becomes more established, it will continue to take share from lower quality, smuggled product.

The anticipated legalization of marijuana in New Jersey will put another nail in the smuggling coffin, and we anticipate a further two-thirds drop of marijuana smuggling in the field by 2021. The collapse of marijuana smuggling has nothing to do with border patrol and everything to do with legalization at the state level. Nevertheless, in the time honored tradition, U.S. presidents can take credit for achievements on their watch. President Trump should do so.

Source: US Customs and Border Patrol,Princeton Policy Forecasts

Of course, other, more dangerous drugs are also smuggled in. These mostly enter through legal crossing points, the interdiction of which requires more customs personnel rather than troops in the field. Still, some hard drugs are brought in on foot away from official crossing points.

Of these, only methamphetamines are showing notable growth, with some fentanyl appearing in small, if potent, quantities. In total, only 20,000 pounds of hard drugs are forecast to be seized by Border Patrol in 2018 – the equivalent of two backpacks' worth per day. This hardly constitutes a 'drastic surge.'

Why then dispatch the National Guard?

President Trump is not the first to do so. Both Presidents Bush and Obama dispatched National Guard Units to the border. Under Bush, the Guard was deployed from 2006 to 2008 under Operation Jump Start. Obama sent the National Guard in 2010 during Operation Phalanx. In each case, the Guard was intended to supplement Border Patrol personnel while new recruits were added to increase border protection capability. Trump's initiative can be seen in a similar light.

The intention to deploy the Guard is best understood as symbolic. Both Presidents Bush and Obama deployed the Guard to the border in a run-up to a difficult midterm elections. President Bush's Operation Jump Start began in May 2006, five months before the midterm elections which saw the Democrats retake the House, the Senate and a majority of the governorships from the Republican Party.

President Obama's Operation Phalanx began in July 2010, four months before the Democrats were routed in the midterm elections of that year. Those midterms saw the worst reverses for the Democrats since the Great Depression. The Republicans retook the House, added six seats in the U.S. Senate, and gained 680 seats in state legislative races, breaking the previous record of 628 set by Democrats following the Watergate scandals.

President Trump's Guard deployment can be considered as one element in a wider political package which includes, for example, recent steel tariffs. In 2002, President Bush also imposed steel tariffs at virtually the same point in his term with an eye to firming up support in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. President Trump announced the current tariffs just before a special election in steel country near Pittsburgh.

The proper read on Guard deployment, therefore, is that it has almost nothing to do with securing the border and everything to do with shoring up the Republican Party's political prospects. This in turn tells us two things. First, the President, despite his shoot-from-the-hip style, is in fact receiving—and taking—political advice on traditional Republican tactics to buttress the Party's electoral prospects.

Further, given the brutal defeats suffered by both Bush and Obama in the 2006 and 2010 midterms respectively, and given that the current Guard deployment was announced even earlier than in those years, the White House is bracing for electoral Armageddon come November.

Migrants and border control have nothing to do with it. Despite the bravado coming from the president, the truth is that the White House is running scared.

Commentary by Steven Kopits, president, Princeton Policy Advisors.

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