Candidates for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat offer their views on President Trump’s signature project – the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
When President Donald Trump traveled to Alabama for his raucous political rallies last year, he was serenaded with enthusiastic chants from supporters of, “Build the wall.”
Trump, since his election win, continues to promise a “big, beautiful” structure along the U.S.-Mexico border, paid for by Mexico.
But the signature policy of the Trump administration has run into questions: Will it be a fence, or will it be an actual wall? Who’s going to pay for it – the Mexicans, who refuse to do so, or U.S. taxpayers?
In Alabama, where Trump won by historic margins in November, a special U.S. Senate race involving 18 candidates this summer offers two stark contrasts on the wall: Republicans, for the most part, support it, even if they disagree over how to fund it, while Democrats oppose it.
The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 15, followed with a scheduled Sept. 26 runoff if one is needed. The general election is Dec. 12.
For the GOP, who have dominated statewide elections in recent years, the leading candidates for the party’s nomination support the construction of Trump’s wall.
Just two Republicans within the 10-candidate field are publicly stating opposition to a physical barrier between the two countries.
And among the Republican candidates who do support the wall, there are a variety of views on how to pay for it, even if the structures actual costs are unknown and vary wildly: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell estimates it around $15 billion, while Senate Democrats put the price tag around $70 billion to build, and $150 million a year to maintain.
Sanctuary cities and tolls
Luther Strange, the current Senator who is running for election to the seat for the first time, announced last month that he was teaming up with a Georgia lawmaker to sponsor legislation that would tie the payment of the wall to so-called sanctuary cities. Those cities, which could include Birmingham, are those that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities on enforcing immigration laws.
Strange, last week, said his proposal has the potential to “free up millions of dollars for use on the wall,” but admitted that the total amount depends on the number of “sanctuary” jurisdictions.
Two other leading candidates – U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of Huntsville and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore – also support the idea.
Moore, though, believes other anti-illegal immigration actions should be considered. He supports border states protecting their own territories, and backs “limited” military involvement at the border to “save costs.”
But if a wall “is deemed necessary, then I see no prohibition from taking money from cities which openly flaunt our immigration policies (i.e., sanctuary cities),” Moore said in an email statement through a spokesman.
Brooks, meanwhile, claims that he beat Strange to the punch when it comes to finding financing solutions for the wall and points to his support of the so-called “El Chapo” bill, pushed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. That legislation, introduced earlier this spring, would seize the assets of Mexican drug cartel leaders in U.S. custody. The bill was named after jailed Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, who was extradited to the U.S. in January.
“That could be as much as $14 billion,” said Brooks. “We’re hopeful that the administration gets behind it and pushes it and it will significantly increase the chances of success.”
Brooks, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said a border wall makes economic sense. In citing data from the Federal for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) – a group which seeks reduced immigration – Brooks said illegal immigration costs American taxpayers $99 billion annually.
He said a wall would be a cheaper solution, and he wouldn’t be opposed to having sanctuary cities foot part of the bill.
Strange, meanwhile, said his sanctuary city proposal is just part of the strategy he supports in “fully securing” the border. He said that strategy should include surveillance technologies and more border agents.
“These efforts must be accompanied by an end to policies like catch-and-release, which exacerbate the long-term crisis of illegal immigration,” said Strange.
Dr. Randy Brinson, president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, agrees that a physical wall is only part of the solution. He also supports heightened cyber security, surveillance, more drones and border agents.
Brinson, though, is critical of Strange’s push to have sanctuary cities pay for the wall, saying that it “doesn’t make any sense.”
“The amount of money you get from a sanctuary city is negligible,” he said.
Birmingham businessman and fellow Senate candidate Dom Gentile agrees. He calls Strange’s proposal a “gimmick.”
“He likes to bump his gums and not find solutions to the problem,” said Gentile. “The president promised that he’ll get Mexico to pay for the wall. My position is that he needs to live up to the promise.”
Absent a Mexican payment, Gentile said he supports a tariff on imported Mexican goods.
But perhaps the most outside-the-box proposals to pay for the wall come from Trip Pittman, the Alabama state senator from the Eastern Shore of Baldwin County, and Dr. James Beretta, a physician who practices in Pelham.
Pittman supports the wall, and believes in distinct borders. He quotes the poet Robert Frost in making his case in support of the structure: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
But unlike Gentile, Pittman said he doesn’t support tariffs. Instead, he supports tolls.
Pittman said he believes that some sort of toll system at the border can go a long way in building the structure.
“There may be a way to look at the actual people who cross over (the U.S.-Mexico border) and it’s something we need to look at,” said Pittman. “We have a history of tolls in this country. I remember the (Bankhead) Tunnel (in Mobile) used to have a 25-cent toll. Maybe some type of toll is a way to pay for the wall. It’s just an option, and maybe it ought to be considered.”
Beretta said the federal government should focus first on building what he calls a “financial wall.”
He suggests that a requirement within a federal tax break proposal include a provision requiring companies pay their employees through electronic direct deposit only. Penalties, he said, would be assessed to companies that pay employees with cash that cannot be tracked by the IRS.
“It would create a financial wall (for undocumented immigrants),” said Beretta.
Bucking the party
At least two of the GOP candidates in the field are bucking party stalwarts by not supporting Trump’s wall proposal.
Among them is 37-year-old restaurant consultant Bryan Peeples of Birmingham.
“The funds proposed to build a physical wall can be used to invest in more staffing and education of border agents,” said Peeples. “We can also use the funds proposed to reinvest in our infrastructure, education and communities to promote small business needs.”
Mary Maxwell, who moved from Australia to run for the Senate seat in Alabama, takes the strongest tone among GOPers by calling the wall “nonsense.”
Maxwell said she’s seen the use of walls in other countries, such as around the Parliament House in Australia, and calls it an “insult” to the public. Maxwell said while she supports Trump she “gets no kick out of treating Mexicans like criminals or invaders.”
Trump, himself, in recent months has acknowledged a reduction in illegal border crossings even without a physical barrier. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that 15,780 people were apprehended and declared inadmissible at the southern border in April, a significant drop off from the 48,502 during the same month in 2016.
Similar declines occurred in February and March.
But despite the falling numbers, Trump said during a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., in April that his supporters shouldn’t lose any sleep, “We will build a wall.”
The Democratic candidates, meanwhile, are heaping criticism on a project that polls show most Americans do not support.
According to a YouGov poll conducted in April, 51 percent of adults said they don’t believe Trump will build it, while only 29 percent said he was likely to accomplish that goal.
A Pew Research Center poll taken in February has 62 percent of Americans opposing a wall. That same poll shows that 70 percent of Americans are skeptical that Mexico will pay for it.
The polling shows partisan differences – Republicans, in the Pew study, overwhelmingly support the wall with 74 percent supporting it in February.
Not surprisingly, Democratic opposition is overwhelming: 94 percent of liberal Democrats and 84 percent of moderate Democrats oppose the wall.
Alabama’s Democratic senate candidates all agree: The wall isn’t needed.
“It is a huge waste of money,” said Brian McGee, a Lee County Democrat. “A determined human being will find a way to go over, under or around any wall built by man.”
Said Charles Nana of Hoover, who has previously run for Democratic Senate nomination: “The proposed wall if built will represent pure arrogance, intolerance and blind hatred of a wealthy neighbor towards the less wealthy.”
Jason Fisher, an Orange Beach consultant for a direct-marking firm, said that U.S. immigration challenges cannot be solved by “an unnecessary and overly expensive wall” and he accused the GOP-led Congress and Trump of “playing politics on an issue that requires pragmatic solutions.”
And Will Boyd, a minister and former Greenville city councilman, said the wall is much too expensive. Instead of financing the structure, he said policy makers would be better off in addressing wages.
“At a time when the income of the richest 1 percent are tripling and corporate profits have quadrupled, we need to be raising the minimum wage and not a border wall,” said Boyd.