US President Donald Trump declares a national emergency at the US-Mexico border during remarks about border security in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, February 15 2019. Picture: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA
US President Donald Trump declares a national emergency at the US-Mexico border during remarks about border security in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, February 15 2019. Picture: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA

US President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency on the US southern border on Friday in a bid to unlock money to build his proposed wall, a day after agreeing to sign legislation providing about $1.4bn for the controversial project.

Combined with spending legislation Trump also intends to sign, the move will free up about $8bn for the wall, Trump’s top campaign promise. He criticised Congress for not providing more than $1.375bn in the spending bill passed on Thursday, enough for about 88km of physical barriers.

“They’re simply incapable” of providing necessary funding for the wall, Trump’s acting chief of staff said. With Trump’s executive actions, “we should have sufficient money this year” to complete as much wall as the president proposed in a $5.7bn budget request, about 376km.

In unscripted remarks on Friday, Trump depicted the declaration as ordinary and said: “I didn’t need to do this ... I just want to get it done faster,” he said of the wall.

Trump noted that it’s not uncommon for presidents to declare emergencies in the event of natural disasters or other events. “There’s rarely been a problem,” Trump said. “They sign it. Nobody cares. We’re talking about an invasion of our country, with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs.”

“I went through Congress. I made a deal,” Trump said. “But I’m not happy with it. I’ve already done a lot of wall for the election, 2020.” He said law makers had provided more money than he wanted for initiatives such as improving security at ports of entry at the border. “I don’t know what to do with it, we have so much money,” Trump said. “But on the wall, they skimped.”

As Trump discussed his decision in the White House Rose Garden, his press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted a picture of him signing the emergency declaration. Trump said, “I expect to be sued” over the decision, and predicted he could initially lose if the case winds up with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which he has frequently criticised as biased against him.

He said he expects the Supreme Court to eventually rule on the matter. “Happily, we’ll win. I think.” 

Democrat response

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Trump can, indeed, expect a legal fight.

“The president’s actions clearly violate the Congress’s exclusive power of the purse, which our founders enshrined in the constitution,” the two law makers said in a joint statement. “The Congress will defend our constitutional authorities in the Congress, in the courts, and in the public, using every remedy available.”

Trump’s gambit combines an emergency declaration with normal executive actions, and comes after he failed to convince Congress of the necessity for his proposed wall. The emergency declaration will allow Trump to redirect $3.5bn Congress approved for the defence department’s military construction budget. He’ll use ordinary executive authority to reprogramme $2.5bn from the defence department’s drug interdiction efforts and $600m from the treasury department’s drug forfeiture programme, a senior administration official said on Thursday.

Two-thirds of Americans — and more than a quarter of Republicans — said they opposed wall construction using an emergency declaration in a January poll conducted by Quinnipiac University. One reason the president may have struggled to build political momentum behind his demand for new border wall funding is data indicating illegal crossings have declined. 

And while Trump has painted many migrants entering the country as violent criminals, data indicates that an increasing number of immigrants apprehended at the border are families and unaccompanied children. In the last fiscal year, the number of family units apprehended on the border rose 42% from the previous year, while the number of minors traveling alone increased 21%.

The Trump administration also issued a report late last year conceding that there was no credible evidence international terrorists used Mexico as a base to send operatives into the US, and that “terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter”.

This data could undercut Trump’s legal arguments for an emergency. His timing also weakens his case: the declaration, coming after Congress refused to meet his funding demands, suggests to critics that his motives are political and not related to any actual change in activity at the border.

The administration officials declined to discuss Trump’s legal strategy to defend the emergency declaration.