Cut defense to fund a border wall? How one Army town weighs the costs.
At Fort Bragg, America’s largest military base by population, the upgrade of an elementary school could be postponed. Ditto for some refueling infrastructure at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. And funds for improvements at Camp Lejeune, a Marine base still struggling to recover after the damage of Hurricane Florence, are at risk.
President Donald Trump wants to fund an expansion of walls on the Mexican border by diverting some $3.6 billion in funds currently slated for United States military construction.
But the president’s push raises a question that has deeper resonance here in North Carolina (home to each of the bases mentioned above) and in other conservative-leaning states: What happens when a Republican president borrows money from one national-security effort to finance another one?
In the communities surrounding Fort Bragg, views of Mr. Trump’s stratagem are varied. Many worry about shortchanging the needs of U.S. servicemen and women, and their families, or the local economy. Others doubt a border barrier will be effective. But even here, in a place that advertises itself as “America’s most military-friendly state,” views are heavily shaped by opinions about immigration. Many residents interviewed support the president’s move, saying the situation at the U.S. border is now a genuine security crisis.
“He’s doing a great job and he better keep it up,” says Charles Hurlburt, a retiree near Fort Bragg who served 23 years in the Army, including during the Vietnam War. Without control of the border, he says, “you’ll lose control of the country.”
Will diverting money from military training facilities and children’s schools toward the border reduce national defense readiness? Mr. Hurlburt doesn’t think so, saying “we never lacked” when he was in the service, and that Mr. Trump “has done a lot for the military.”
On immigration, Mr. Hurlburt says more oversight is needed. “There’s a way to come to this country. And there’s a way not to come to this country.” His wife is from Panama, and he recounts that it was only after several years of marriage that she got citizenship. Given that so many have made lives in the U.S. after arriving illegally, he says those who are law-abiding and pay taxes “ought to be moved to the head of the line.”
But views on the trade-off of border security versus national security span the map here, as elsewhere, depending in part on whether immigrants are viewed as industrious people fleeing violence and poverty or as free riders who use a porous border to game America’s welfare system.
“It’s a waste of money,” says military retiree Charles L. Miller, referring to the border wall. He voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 but, as he stops to run an errand in the town of Spring Lake on the edge of Fort Bragg, he says the president’s emergency declaration is “overstepping his authority.”
It’s not that Mr. Miller doesn’t care about a secure border. “I just don’t think the wall is the solution,” he says.
A few miles away, Jeanine Dodson agrees with Trump’s border-funding plan, and she worries about the cost of immigrants to American taxpayers. As for concerns about cuts to military spending, she figures it’s at most a temporary setback.
“If we have border security and we stop feeding billions of dollars to illegals, then it wouldn’t take long” before the government has fresh money available for the military needs, she says.
Americans’ diverging views on immigration may be evolving alongside the security situation on the border. Although illegal border crossings are hovering near historic lows, March is on pace for 100,000 apprehensions by border authorities – the most in any month in more than a decade.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said last week that a “breaking point” had arrived. The Border Patrol is struggling with housing those who are apprehended and meeting the health needs of migrants who increasingly are families with children.
On Friday, President Trump announced plans to cut off foreign aid for three Central American nations – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – which are now the leading source of migrants crossing the southern U.S. border. Mr. Trump also threatened a move that would be economically damaging to both the U.S. and Mexico: close the southern U.S. border to trade and travel, unless Mexico does more to stop the immigrant flow.
Many Americans are concerned about border security, but only 44 percent favor Mr. Trump’s idea of a new border wall, versus 51 percent opposed, according to an early March national poll by Monmouth University. When asked if they supported an emergency declaration so that military funds could be diverted to the border, support fell to 33 percent, versus 65 percent opposed.
While leaning conservative in many ways, North Carolina can be a swing state in presidential elections. Many in this region are more supportive of the armed forces than they are of Mr. Trump. Fort Bragg, near the city of Fayetteville in the center of the state, is the heart of the Army’s airborne and special operations forces. Fayetteville in 2008 began describing itself as a “sanctuary for soldiers,” signaling its efforts to provide special support to military families.
“We like to see our military protected,” says Kerri Ross, a longtime resident. “They’ll be hurting” because of his plans, she says. “The housing for our military families is atrocious.”
Part of a family with deep ties to the armed forces, she worries service members will be shortchanged because, in her view, “he wants a Trump Wall as a legacy.”
As for the border, “I’ve lived in California and Arizona,” Ms. Ross says. “People want in, and they’re going to find a way to get in.”
In his latest budget proposal, the president requested $8.6 billion in wall funding. But with little hope of that passing a divided Congress, he has also turned toward the use of military funds. The Department of Defense recently responded with a list of projects that could potentially be postponed, narrowing that list down to $4.3 billion in projects that would avoid cuts to military housing or dormitory improvements.
Still, many North Carolina civilians worry about the message sent by delaying military projects. “It’ll hurt us in the long run,” says Martin Lee, a Spring Lake resident who works at a nearby perfume factory. The military budget is “something he shouldn’t be messing with.”
Brent Sides, who unlike Mr. Lee was a Trump supporter in 2016, is also wary. On this early spring day, with the warm sun coaxing nearby buds and blossoms to open, Mr. Sides has just finished painting the outlines of some new parking spaces at a Food Lion near Fort Bragg.
He laments that Congress and the White House haven’t been able to strike a bargain on immigration and border policies.
“It’s coming to just butting heads,” he says of Washington politics. Although he calls enhanced border security “the right thing to do,” he says “it’s got to be a good plan.”