WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe lauded President Donald Trump’s politically charged deployment of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border — and offered legislation Thursday he says will fund a border wall.
“Simply put, border security is national security, and right now we need to defend our southern border,” Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement to Defense News.
Though the bill’s text was not immediately made public, Inhofe’s “WALL Act,” would bar undocumented immigrants from accessing government benefits and tax credits to use that savings to “fund the President’s $25 billion border wall,” according to a summary.
Inhofe also framed the legislation as an alternative to the Department of Defense paying for the wall — a path the Trump administration has sought.
“No one sees this as a long-term solution,” Inhofe said of the troop deployments. “That’s why I’m introducing legislation that will fully fund the wall — without having to use DoD funds — and reform our asylum process, taking a lot of the pressure off [the Department of Homeland Security] and Border Patrol so active-duty troops won’t be needed in the future.”
Whether the funding mechanism adds up remains to be seen.
“This is a gimmick,” said longtime Washington-based budget analyst Stan Collender. “It proposes to use spending that’s not actually certain to be spent to pay for the wall. It’s nothing more than a deficit increase in sheep’s clothing.”
Inhofe’s support comes as Trump said the number of troops he is sending to protect against a migrant caravan could grow to as many as 15,000 active-duty and National Guard personnel, putting the deployment on par with the military’s wartime operations in Afghanistan.
Troops at the U.S.-Mexico border will be limited in what they can do under a federal law that restricts the military from engaging in law enforcement on American soil. That means the troops will not be allowed to detain immigrants, seize drugs from smugglers or have any direct involvement in stopping a migrant caravan that is still about 1,000 miles from the nearest border crossing.
Instead, their role will largely mirror that of the existing National Guard troops — about 2,000 in all — deployed to the border over the past six months, including providing helicopter support for border missions, installing concrete barriers, and repairing and maintaining vehicles. The new troops will include military police, combat engineers and helicopter companies equipped with advanced technology to help detect people at night.
The deployments have been criticized as a wasteful political stunt to motivate Republican voters to show up for midterm elections next week — a charge Defense Secretary Jim Mattis dismissed during a Wednesday news conference.
In supporting Trump, Inhofe cited previous presidents deploying troops to support the civilian agencies on the border, a rise in illegal immigration and the president’s insistence the situation is urgent.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, made a similar argument last week, when the Pentagon was expected to send just 800 troops, but he has not publicly commented since.
"A fundamental responsibility of any country’s government is to control who and what comes across its border,” Thornberry said. “Allowing thousands of people to cross America’s southern borders in contravention of our laws is not a sustainable solution to the difficult conditions driving people out of their homes and countries in Central America.”
Trump has taken a hard stance on immigration, but after campaigning on Mexico paying for a border wall, Mexico has refused and Trump has struggled to win support in Congress for the cost.
Approaching midterms, Trump has made immigration policy a priority; besides troop deployments, he wants to sign an executive order to end automatic citizenship for children born in the U.S. whose parents are undocumented immigrants — though the legality of that proposal is under debate.
Meanwhile, Trump has focused on migrant caravans slowly making their way to the U.S. On Wednesday, he pointed to a violent clash with Mexican authorities on the Guatemala-Mexico border earlier in the week.
“This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” Trump tweeted Monday. On Thursday, he tweeted a political ad accusing the Democratic Party of allowing in rioters and cop-killers.
In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday, Inhofe offered a milder assessment of the caravans than Trump has, saying he didn’t blame Central American migrants attracted by President Barack Obama’s more permissive policies toward asylum seekers for trying to enter the United States.
“These people who are asylum seekers, it’s not really their fault, they are coming up here at the invitation of Obama,” Inhofe said. “I don’t blame them.”
Inhofe in August proposed legislation that would require migrants to declare asylum at embassies or consulates in Mexico; create a criminal bench warrant for immigrants that have failed to appear for immigration court; and create a pilot program for alternatives to detention.
Inhofe’s new bill would require work-authorizing Social Security numbers to claim the earned income tax credit or the child tax credit; require states to verify citizenship using e-verification prior to granting federal government benefits like housing subsidies; and increase “minimum fines on illegal border crossers.”
That savings would be between $14 billion and $30 billion, Inhofe said this week, citing a Joint Committee on Taxation estimate.
“This is one where most of the money will come from that will build [the] very wall that you and I know has to come about if we’re going to solve this problem,” Inhofe said.
Inhofe’s office and an official with Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation declined to provide that estimate, but a 2016 Congressional Budget Office estimate projected $37 billion in savings over 10 years from a similar plan.
Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgeting for the Clinton administration and who has ties to the congressional Budget committees, dismissed the bill and its funding mechanism as “100 percent political B.S.”
“Can’t pay for a discretionary expenditure with estimates of out-year mandatory savings,” Adams said. “A very large teapot, with a tempest swirling around, but not amounting to a hill of beans, to mix metaphors.”
Unable to get enough congressional support to fund the wall, Trump said Sept. 8 he is looking toward the military.
“We have two options: we have military and we have Homeland Security,” Trump told reporters then. “I’d rather get it through politically, I’d rather get it through Congress. If we don’t, I’m looking at that option very seriously.”
On Sept. 4, DHS asked the Defense Department use $450 million to enhance existing border fencing and construct new border fencing along 31 miles of the Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona.
A Pentagon spokesman said Thursday no decision on that request has been made.
The range falls within “a known drug-smuggling corridor for transnational criminal organizations,” said Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, adding that the request “also address increasing human life and safety concerns by deterring unlawful entry onto an active bombing range.”
Key Democrats urged Mattis in a letter to deny the request, citing testimony from Pentagon officials on the need for investments in maintenance, training, modernization of aging weapons systems and the DoD’s $116 billion maintenance backlog.
That letter was signed by Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee; Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee; Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., ranking member of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee; and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., ranking member of the House Appropriations military construction subcommittee.
Still, the administration would have to seek congressional approval to transfer funding in the way DHS has requested. As of Wednesday, a Senate Appropriations Committee aide confirmed there has been no formal request for that purpose.
The conversation is not over. A DHS spokeswoman said Wednesday that Secretary Kristjen Nielsen “is committed to building President Trump’s border wall and is engaged in ongoing conversations with the Department of Defense.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.