RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Besides the ongoing debate over DACA - the status of children brought to the country illegally by their parents - the White House has identified three other key issues as part of their focus on immigration - chain migration, border security and the visa lottery system. Today, we're digging into the issue of border security. President Trump's legislative affairs director, Marc Short, told us earlier this week that the plan isn't just about a literal wall.
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MARC SHORT: The president has said himself, in talking to CBP, in many cases, they say it's not a concrete wall. It is, in some cases, fencing because it's better for them to see through and enables them to better protect the border. But it is a physical barrier.
MARTIN: The estimated cost of that barrier and other border security enhancements - around $18 billion over 10 years. I spoke to Doris Meissner about that. She was head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under the Clinton administration. And I asked her what that money - $18 billion - is supposed to buy along the border and what's different about that from what's already there.
DORIS MEISSNER: According to the estimates that they gave, it buys, I believe, about 700 miles of fencing. Some of that is replacement fencing. The enforcement budget at the present time for the southwest border is somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 billion a year, so adding 18 billion is doubling that just for fencing. So it is putting an enormous amount of investment into a response that has proven to be useful only as a partial response.
MARTIN: There are, however, still 300,000 people a year coming over that border. So how do you keep them from coming?
MEISSNER: Well, there are 300,000 apprehensions. There are less actual people that are being apprehended. That sounds like a large number, but that's not compared to just 10 or 15 years ago, when it was well over a million - 1.6 million. So the overall trend here is dramatically down. The more important thing is the change in the character of the flow.
The flow is now more than half people from Central American countries. They are asylum-seekers. They are looking for a Border Patrol agent to turn themselves over to or they're coming more and more now to ports of entry and presenting themselves. And those reasons are less likely to be mitigated by fencing than they are by an effective and timely decision system in our immigration courts and in our asylum system in order to decide these cases in a timely fashion. The other investment that is very important to make at the present time is at our legal ports of entry.
MARTIN: Places like - give us a couple examples.
MEISSNER: Well, San Ysirdo, Nogales, El Paso - the bridges and the highways that bring people and trucks and goods into the United States and hundreds of millions of crossings in some of these ports of entry every year. That's a big infrastructure issue of building those out in ways that makes it possible for enforcement personnel to examine more people coming into the country. That's...
MARTIN: And you think that should - that is where the investment dollars should go, into something like that?
MEISSNER: Definitely investment dollars should go there because more and more, that is the weak link.
MARTIN: Let me ask you this. Earlier this week, we spoke with the White House's head of legislative affairs, Marc Short. And he said that Democrats should get on board with the idea of the wall - as loosely defined - because they have voted for something similar before. He's referring to the so-called Gang of Eight immigration plan. Here's what he said.
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SHORT: They voted in 2006 - including Chuck Schumer, including Hillary Clinton, including Barack Obama - for the Secure Fence Act. It is what Democrats have voted for before. It's what Customs and Border Patrol career officials tell us we need to secure our border.
MARTIN: Is he right? Is that an accurate characterization?
MEISSNER: Yes, it's certainly true that Democrats have voted for funding for barriers in the past. I mean, when I was commissioner in the 1990s of the immigration service - it was a Democratic administration - we were the first to go to the Congress with proposals for fencing. So this - fencing has been part of the border response for a long time. Democrats are not walking away from strengthening border security and from strategies that include fencing and maintaining the fencing. They are objecting, however, to the idea of a wall across the entire southwest border - 2,000 miles - at a price tag that is astronomical.
MARTIN: But I hear you saying you believe there is common ground to be reached?
MEISSNER: I think there could be common ground. Whether they really want to come to the table and resolve this, well, it's hard to say. But if there is goodwill, there certainly is common ground.
MARTIN: That was Doris Meissner. She's the former commissioner of the INS and currently a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.