By Keerthi Vedantam
WASHINGTON – Arizona Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead said there is an “ongoing crisis” at the border affecting all states, not just Arizona, and he called on Washington to fund a border wall to help stop it.
“I think there’s misconceptions about what the wall is,” Milstead said in Washington Friday. “It’s not keeping people out … it’s to bring people to the international ports of entry so undocumented people become documented and it’s to thwart the cartels and their ability to be uninterrupted, bringing narcotics that kill our people.”
He was one of 19 law enforcers, faith leaders and elected officials invited to a White House meeting Friday to discuss border security with President Donald Trump, who took the opportunity to attack Democratic refusal to fund a wall.
“Congress has to do its duty, and the Democrats have to help us,” Trump said.
The meeting came as a partial government shutdown caused by a budget impasse over the border wall entered a record-setting fourth week. An estimated 800,000 federal workers could go without paychecks this week, because funding for their agencies ran out on Dec. 22.
The House, now in Democratic control, passed a series of bills this week that would fund many of those agencies – including the departments of Agriculture, Treasury and Interior – through the end of this fiscal year.
They have also proposed extending the Department of Homeland Security budget for another month, to allow time to negotiate on border issues.
But Senate Republican leaders refused to take up any budget bill that will not be signed by the president, and Trump has said he will not approve any budget that does not include $5.7 billion for a border barrier.
Despite Trump’s calls for Democrats to negotiate, Democratic leaders said it was the president who walked out of their last meeting, calling the negotiations a waste of time, according to news reports.
Trump insisted Friday that he has an “absolute right” to declare a national emergency over border security and tap Defense Department funds to build a wall without congressional approval – though he acknowledged that any such move would likely be challenged immediately in court.
“If they (Congress) can’t do it … I will declare a national emergency,” Trump said. “I’d rather not do it. I don’t want to give them an easy way out.”
But Trump insisted that the “only way you’re going to stop” trafficking of drugs and people is with a wall. He pointed to stories of migrant deaths, including the story of migrants who were left to suffocate in a locked tractor-trailer, what Trump called “a hell of a death” and “a disgrace.”
“You get people … saying walls are immoral,” Trump said, after ticking off a litany of crimes committed both by and against immigrants. “What’s immoral is what’s happening.”
Milstead steered clear of partisan finger-pointing, but he pushed back against critics who say the wall will not work. He noted that when border barriers went up along the border near Yuma, crimes there dropped.
“It’s not about elitism, it’s not about separatism, it’s not about racism,” Milstead said. “It’s about safety for America.”
He also acknowledged that a wall would likely be different than the “big, beautiful wall” Trump touted on the campaign trail. Milstead said a barrier of steel slats that border agents can see through and animals and waters can pass through – much like what exists at the border now – could work.
Milstead, calling Arizona one of the “front doors for narcotics coming into America,” said the state will “take all the help we can get from Washington.”