Democrats brilliantly outplayed Trump on the wall negotiations — and got an even better deal than it seems
Speaker Nancy Pelosi clapping at President Donald Trump (Photo: Screen capture)

As President Donald Trump prepares to sign a new government funding deal that ends the ongoing negotiations about border security spending, Democrats have mostly kept their heads down. They want him to sign the deal, so they're not gloating about it.

But the facts are clear: Not only did they win in any reasonable sense of the word, it looks like they totally outplayed Trump on his signature issue.

Most headlines about the deal have focused on the funding for border fencing. Trump had asked for $5.7 billion for barriers, and he's getting $1.375 billion. Democrats had offered $0, so this looks at first glance like a compromise that somewhat favors the Democrats while still involving a significant concession on their part.

And yet, forcing Trump to back off from the concrete border wall that Trump promised during the campaign is already an achievement for Democrats. Vox's Li Zhou explained that the bill prohibits this initial promise: "According to a congressional Democratic aide, the deal explicitly prohibits the use of this money on a concrete wall, and only authorizes funds for 'existing technologies,' like the current fencing along the southern border."

Trump's ask of $5.7 billion itself was a walk back, too. He once asked Democrats for $25 billion — but he sabotaged that deal, and that number now seems unthinkable.

And there's a lot more to the bill than the barrier funding provision.

As PBS Newshour laid out, the president sees it as a win that the bill allows for 50 new immigration judges. But Trump has actually previously disparaged the idea of having more immigration judges. And while immigration court can be swift and unjust for many immigrants seeking a fair hearing of their claims, the alternative of having a backlogged caseload, forcing many to wait in custody before they see a judge, is hardly a better solution. So this "win" for Trump's priorities is relatively meager.

The bill also allows for more hires of customs agents and border patrol personnel, which Trump sees as a win. But it's also unclear how much this will actually change the reality on the ground, because the border patrol has already been struggling to fill the vacanancies it has.

And even as Trump's "wins" are pretty paltry, Democrats secured real achievements in the bill to mitigate some of the worst aspects of the administration's immigration policy.

PBS Newshour documented how Democrats secured three major concessions: more alternatives to immigration detention, more help (legal and otherwise) from immigrant families who are detained, and a direct rebuke to some of the CBP's worst practices.

Reporter Lisa Desjardins noted that it was "extraordinary" that the appropriations bill, for example, contained language calling for immigration detention facilities to maintain adequate temperatures — a clear denunciation of the reports that immigrants were kept in freezing rooms — and that the facilities avoid the use of "chain-link type enclosures" — which refers to the infamous cages that children were shown to be kept in under Trump's policies.

"This is unusual congressional-speak to say they've gone too far, and they need to improve their treatment of people," said Desjardins.

There are other signs that the bill is a major blow to Trump's agenda — in particular, the fact that so many of his anti-immigrant allies are infuriated by the legislation.

One reason they're mad is that, even though the bill provides some funding for border barriers (not a concrete wall), it gives local communities input over this construction — essentially allowing them to veto anything they don't like. And since border communities generally vote Democratic and largely hate the idea of a wall, they may oppose much of this construction altogether. So it's not even clear if all or most of the 55 miles of new border barriers will, in fact, be permitted.

Meanwhile, another provision says that the Department of Homeland Security will not be able to remove or detain anyone who is a "sponsor, potential sponsor, or member of a household of a sponsor or potential sponsor of an unaccompanied alien child." This will provide substantial protection for families to be able to stay together, a rightful remedy to the cruel family separations that Trump administration has inflicted on an untold number of children. Critics of this provision argue that it provides a large loophole for undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States, but it's far from clear to what extent this would really be a problem — while family separations represent a clear and ongoing human rights abuse.

Trump is planning to declare a national emergency along with signing the bill in order to get more funding for the border barriers. But this, too, could turn out to benefit the Democrats. The effort is almost certain to get held up in court, and it could ultimately doom the president's hope for a wall.

At the same time, the declaration is deeply controversial among congressional Republicans, and Democrats are unified in opposition. So even if Trump views the declaration as a success, it could put even further distance between him and his party when his need for their support grows every day.