Trump's Border Wall Would Be a Symbolic Waste of Money, Former Homeland Security Chief Says

As lawmakers race against the clock to avoid another government shutdown over border security, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has offered a word of advice: Don't put taxpayers' money behind President Donald Trump's border wall.

In an interview with Newsweek on Tuesday, Chertoff, who was the second chief to lead the DHS under the George W. Bush administration after the department was formed in response to the September 11 attacks, expressed hope that lawmakers would be able to strike a deal on border security before February 15, when a funding measure to keep the government open runs out.

While Chertoff said he believes there is "a reasonable chance that politicians on both sides can come with a reasonable formula that promotes border security," he said he hopes that formula will not include Trump's long-promised border wall.

Asked whether Trump's demand for $5.7 billion to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico was a worthy endeavor, Chertoff replied, "No."

"I think the idea of a wall in and of itself is a symbol. It's not a real tool," said Chertoff, who led the country's Homeland Security Department from February 2005 to January 2009. "It is not an efficient or effective tool."

Chertoff argued for more comprehensive reform. "The right way to do border security is to look at the entire system," Chertoff said. "And that begins with what is pushing people to leave their countries and come to the U.S. in the first place. In some cases, it's violence and the rule of law not being in existence."

The majority of asylum seekers arriving at the southern U.S. border, Chertoff noted, have been people fleeing violence, as well as economic and political instability, in Central American countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. "One of the big things that causes this kind of crisis is the push that happens when people in parts of the northern triangle in this hemisphere are afraid for their lives," he said. "When people are afraid of their lives, we can't deter them from fleeing."

While Trump's border wall would "fulfill some sort of visual image" the president seeks, Chertoff said, the country would be better served by investing in the asylum process and in the needs of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency.

"At the border itself, what you see with most people coming across the border is that they are going to the [designated] ports of entry," Chertoff said. "That's not anything that the law deals with. That requires more immigration adjudicators and perhaps more facilities that can hold people."

While the former DHS chief acknowledged that "barriers can be efficient in some locations," where there are long stretches of land between designated ports of entry, he said a wall will do little to prevent illegal immigration, which Trump has touted as the primary reason for building it.

"There are some areas where barriers can be useful," Chertoff said. However, he said they would only be effective "as part of a technological solution, which includes drones, radar and the ability to move personnel very quickly to intercept people."

Read more: Support for Trump's border wall wanes amid shutdown, poll shows

The former DHS head said that rather than pushing for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, the Trump administration should "sit down with professionals at Customs and Border Protection and have them map out where along the border they need additional resources."

"Some of it will be additional people to help adjudicate asylum claims more quickly. Some of it will be technology. Some will show you where they do need to fill in a barrier. When you have a professional plan, then that's when you allocate money across all of those efforts," Chertoff said.

As such, the former DHS chief said that when it comes to ongoing negotiations over border security between Democratic and Republican lawmakers, the answer "lies in the middle, as it often does."

"Having worked in this area for a long time, I think people of good will on both sides could actually reach a pretty quick agreement on what is the best strategy," Chertoff said. "The problem is that we're now bringing politics into this."

In the wake of the recent record-breaking shutdown, which Trump triggered on December 22 after refusing to sign a stopgap measure to keep the government running if it did not include the $5.7 billion in funding he has demanded for the construction of a border wall, a special committee of senators and representatives has been assembled to try to hash out a deal on border security.

The bipartisan committee has until the February 15 deadline to find a proposal that will be able to clear both chambers of Congress and get Trump's approval.

Lawmakers on both sides have expressed skepticism over whether they will be able to strike such a deal, with the president himself asserting that another shutdown could be on the horizon if a proposal he approves of cannot be reached.

Chertoff warned that another shutdown would be "very disruptive and expensive," adding that the "fallout from the first shutdown was sufficiently negative" that he believes politicians "will be reluctant to have another one."

The former DHS chief also lamented the effect that the recent shutdown has likely already had on Americans' interest in working for the federal government.

Noting CBP's recently reported difficulties in meeting hiring demands ordered by Trump in 2017, Chertoff said a shutdown "does not make federal service attractive." Plunging the country into yet another shutdown just weeks after, Chertoff said, would be even more "unhelpful to recruiting people to join the U.S. government workforce."

Chertoff said that if Trump and lawmakers across the aisle are serious about striking a deal that will effectively address border security needs, however, then they will need to spend more time coming up with a "a strategy that includes a lot of different tools to get the job done" and less time "dancing around symbolically."

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Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff speaks during an event to mark the 15th anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security, March 1, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Chertoff has said that President Donald Trump's long-promised border wall would not be an 'effective tool' in addressing border security. Drew Angerer/Getty
Trump's Border Wall Would Be a Symbolic Waste of Money, Former Homeland Security Chief Says | U.S.