In the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump's highest-profile promise was to build the wall -- that is, to construct a barrier along about 1,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. Once elected, Trump's best chance to win money from Congress for a wall came in 2018, when Republican Speaker Paul Ryan controlled the House and Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell controlled the Senate.
It didn't happen. Now, one of Trump's strongest supporters on Capitol Hill, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, is out with a new memoir, "Do What You Said You Would Do," on Nov. 23 that describes those months when GOP lawmakers fought over competing visions of immigration reform. The battle was intense, it was passionate and it came to nothing. No stricter immigration laws were passed, and there was no significant funding for a wall. For that failure, Jordan points the finger of blame straight at then-Speaker Ryan.
"Paul Ryan is not where the American people are," Jordan writes. "Paul Ryan's position on immigration is the same as the positions of the National Chamber of Commerce." In the world of conservative immigration policy activists, accusing someone of siding with the Chamber of Commerce is about as harsh as it gets.
As Jordan tells it, Ryan sabotaged Republican immigration reform by refusing to support a bill that the large majority of Republicans supported, instead pushing a weaker bill that the Chamber supported. The result was that, facing united Democratic opposition, neither Republican bill passed.
The bill promoted by Jordan and his colleagues in the House Freedom Caucus would have "ended family-based chain migration apart from spouses and children," Jordan writes. "It contained mandatory E-Verify language for employers and eliminated the visa lottery ... [it] also defunded sanctuary cities and appropriated $30 billion for construction of the wall." The bill, Jordan argues, "was consistent with the message of the 2016 election."
The bill supported by Ryan would also have funded the wall, albeit with $25 billion. "But it did nothing else to address the problems we were elected to solve," Jordan writes. "It had no language to address chain migration, E-Verify or sanctuary cities ... [It] also created a renewable six-year legal status for up to 2.4 million illegal immigrants and gave those individuals a path to legal citizenship." Finally, while the bill ended the visa lottery, it "reallocated those visas to amnesty recipients."
"Which bill do you think Speaker Ryan supported?" Jordan asks. "You already know the answer."
Ryan, Jordan charges, did not want to allow the House to vote on the Freedom Caucus bill. He did so only after the group threatened to sink a big, must-pass farm bill if they didn't get a vote on immigration. And then, the speaker declined to put pressure on -- or whip, as they say on Capitol Hill -- any Republicans to vote for it. And still, the conservative bill got 193 votes -- a solid majority of the 241 Republicans in the House at that time. Ryan did push for the other bill -- what Jordan calls the Chamber of Commerce bill -- but in the end it got only 121 votes.
"Why push for a bill that was 100 votes short of passing instead of a bill that got 193 votes and therefore was just a few votes shy of passing?" Jordan asks. "You already know why. Paul Ryan doesn't want the legislation President Trump and the American people supported."
The Jordan-Ryan clash was a classic Republican immigration debate. While Democrats are virtually unanimous in support of amnesty and more liberal immigration laws, the GOP is divided between a conservative faction, which favors more restrictive measures, and a business-oriented faction, which favors less restrictive measures and higher levels of immigration. Trump's border wall proposal ran straight into that preexisting conflict.
In the end, Trump found other ways to build some of the wall. By the time he left office and President Biden stopped construction, about 450 miles had been built, most of it replacing existing but dilapidated older barriers. The Republican Congress' failure to fund a wall has had real-life consequences, most recently in the crisis in Del Rio, Texas, when 15,000 illegal border crossers waded across the Rio Grande and created a squalid migrant camp just inside the United States. The Biden administration allowed thousands of them to stay.
It was a crisis that is sure to be repeated, probably in the near future. But the story might have been different had Republicans not been so divided in that 2018 debate.