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A Signature Donald Trump Moment at the Border

Trump’s photo op at the border was his only public appearance during two days in California, a state that has been a hotbed of opposition to his presidency and policies.

New York Times

Updated:September 19, 2019, 10:49 AM IST
A Signature Donald Trump Moment at the Border
President Donald Trump signs a section of the border wall in the neighbourhood of Otay Mesa in San Diego on September 18, 2019. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Otay Mesa (California): One thing President Donald Trump loves about his job is signing his name. He relishes signing executive orders, letters to foreign leaders and even red Make America Great Again hats. But on Wednesday, he signed a wall.

At the invitation of the team building his barrier along the border, he affixed his distinctive signature to one of the steel slats that have risen just opposite Mexico in recent months, the most physical manifestation of what he plans to make his argument for a second term next year and, he hopes, his place in the history books.

Trump flew to this dusty community outside San Diego on a hot, sunny day to highlight the progress, however halting, that he said was finally being made after a couple of years of frustration and political opposition. Like a builder showing off a new tower in New York, he talked in detail about the new barrier, explaining how the 30-foot slats are erected with rebar inside and then filled with concrete and boasting that it would be the most impenetrable wall in the world.

“The wall has a ways to go, but we’re building it at breakneck speed,” he said, surrounded by Border Patrol agents and construction workers. “When this is completed,” he added, “there won’t be a border anywhere like this.”

What he sees as security, of course, is viewed much differently by others who see it as a waste of money or even a symbol of intolerance. Critics say the wall represents a departure from the values of a country built on immigration and is hardly the most cost-effective way to reduce the number of people illegally living in the United States.

Moreover, it is not even the wall that the president promised as a candidate in 2016. At the time, he vowed to build 1,000 miles of barrier that he insisted would be paid for by Mexico. Instead, he has reduced his goal to 500 miles and has diverted money from military construction projects and other government programs over the objection of Congress, which refused to give him the money.

Of the 500 miles, the administration has so far built only 66 miles of replacement barriers in areas that previously had either battered fencing or vehicle blockades. But Trump’s administration has yet to extend the new steel frames, ranging from 18 to 30 feet, to any part of the border that did not previously have some sort of impediment.

Trump’s photo op at the border was his only public appearance during two days in California, a state that has been a hotbed of opposition to his presidency and policies. While fundraising for his re-election, he made a point of taking on California and its Democratic leaders, portraying its biggest cities as awash in homelessness and crime while moving to overturn the state’s efforts to thwart his environmental deregulation initiatives.

He met with none of California’s top elected leaders while in the state and appeared before no audience except those paying thousands of dollars to attend any of four fundraising events that collectively were expected to draw at least $15 million for his re-election campaign and Republicans.

Trump returned to the same section of the border that he visited in March 2018 to inspect prototypes of his wall. This area has also been a flash point for another hotly disputed policy enacted by the administration. The policy forcing migrants seeking asylum to remain in Mexico for the duration of their case began at the San Ysidro port of entry this year, forcing hundreds of migrant families to wait in shelters in Tijuana.

The policy has since been extended farther east to more dangerous Mexican cities like Nuevo Laredo, where migrants have been subjected to kidnappings and violence. More than 40,000 migrants have been returned to Mexico under the policy, which the administration says is needed to weed out fraudulent asylum claims and ease the burden on a detention system that experienced extensive overcrowding this year.

The president was joined by Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, and other top officials who are also still serving in an acting capacity, underscoring the extensive turnover at the department as the president has repeatedly fired officials who disappointed him in cracking down on immigration, including its general counsel, who was dismissed just this week. “I wasn’t happy with the job they were doing,” Trump said, but added that he would announce permanent appointments soon.

Trump said he still expected to get nearly all of the 500 miles completed by the time he stands for re-election next year and said more was not needed because of natural barriers along stretches of the border. While Mexico is not paying for the wall, he noted that it is paying for its soldiers to stop migrants in a more aggressive campaign begun in recent months under pressure from Trump.

The characteristically money-conscious president repeatedly noted that this was the most expensive possible variant, saying he had originally wanted a simple and less costly concrete barrier but was convinced by Border Patrol professionals that it would be better to have a slatted barrier that they could see through to observe any potential threat on the other side. “That’s the Rolls-Royce version,” he said in a chagrined tone.

Trump said the steel slats would be wired — the Army general accompanying him declined to elaborate — and added that they would absorb heat so that they would be too scalding for potential migrants to even touch, much less scale. “You can fry an egg on that wall,” he said.

Mark Morgan, the president’s acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, called the new barriers “a game changer” that has reduced illegal crossings.

“There’s a false narrative out there that this wall is the president’s vanity wall,” Morgan said as Trump listened. “I’m here to tell you right now that’s false.”

Trump was then told that it was tradition for those working on the wall to sign it and was asked to follow suit. He happily took the pen.

Peter Baker c.2019 The New York Times Company

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