Men walk near a reinforced section of the US-Mexico border fence as seen from Tijuana, Mexico. Picture: Guillermo Arias/AFP
Men walk near a reinforced section of the US-Mexico border fence as seen from Tijuana, Mexico. Picture: Guillermo Arias/AFP

Washington — President Donald Trump will ask the US  Congress for an additional $8.6bn to help pay for the wall he promised to build on the southern border with Mexico to combat illegal immigration and drug trafficking, officials familiar with his 2020 budget request say. 

The demand is more than six times what the US congress allocated for border projects in each of the past two fiscal years, and 6%  more than Trump has corralled by invoking emergency powers in 2019.

Democrats, who oppose the wall as unnecessary and immoral, control the US House of Representatives, making it unlikely the Republican president's request will win congressional passage. Republicans control the senate.

Battle over funding

The proposal comes on the heels of a bruising battle with congress over wall funding that resulted in a five-week partial federal government shutdown that ended in January and could touch off a sequel just ahead of a trifecta of ominous fiscal deadlines looming this fall.

Regardless of whether congress passes it, the budget request could help Trump frame his argument on border security as the 2020 presidential race begins to take shape, with the president seeking re-election.

“Build the wall” was one of his signature campaign pledges in his first run for office in 2016. “Finish the wall” is already a feature of his re-election campaign, a rallying cry plastered across banners and signs at his campaign rallies.

“It gives the president the ability to say he has fulfilled his commitment to gain operational control of the southwest border,” an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the budget request.

“We have provided the course of action, the strategy and the request to finish the job. It's a question of, will congress allow us to finish the job,” another administration official said.

Funding legislation needs to be passed before October 1 — the start of the 2020 federal fiscal year — or the government could shut down again. If congress and the White House fail to agree to lift mandatory spending caps set in a 2011 law, steep automatic cuts in many programmes would kick in. Around the same time, Trump and legislators must agree to lift the debt ceiling or risk a default, which would have chaotic economic fallout.

Trump's wall request is based off a 2017 plan put forward by customs and border protection officials to build or replace 1,162km of barrier along the border, which in total is estimated to cost about $18bn.

So far, only 179km have been built or are under way, officials said. In fiscal 2017, $341m in funding was allocated for 64km of the wall, and in 2018, another $1.375bn was directed to 132km.

For fiscal 2019, Trump demanded $5.7bn in wall funds, but congress appropriated only $1.375bn for border fencing projects.

Following the rejection of his wall-funding demand, Trump declared the border was a national emergency — a move opposed by Democrats and some Republicans — and redirected $601m in treasury department forfeiture funds, $2.5bn in defence department drug interdiction funds and $3.6bn from a military construction budget, for total spending of $8.1bn for the wall.

The administration has not estimated how far the 2019 funds will go, but officials said average costs are about $25m per 1.6km.

Trump's $8.6bn in proposed wall funding for fiscal 2020 would include $5bn from the department of homeland security budget and $3.6bn from the Pentagon's military construction budget. The budget proposal will also include another $3.6m in military construction funding to make up for any projects delayed by the wall, officials said.

The department of homeland security is one of a few priority areas to get a boost in Trump's budget plan, which seeks to slash funding to many nondefence programmes.

Trump will propose an overall 5%  increase to the department of homeland security budget over fiscal 2019 appropriations, including $3.3bn, or 22%  more, for customs and border protection, and $1.2bn more for immigration and customs enforcement, a 16%  hike, officials said.

The budget proposal includes a plan to hire more than 2,800 law enforcement and support personnel for the agencies, and 100 immigration judge teams, officials said.

Trump faces both political and court battles to free up the money he wants for the current fiscal year. Many legislators accused Trump of overstepping his constitutional powers by declaring an emergency to free up the funds. The congress has already voted to revoke the emergency, and the senate is likely to do the same this week. Trump is expected to veto the resolution.

A coalition of state governments led by California has sued Trump to block the emergency move, though legal experts have said the cases face a difficult road. 

Reuters