Sen. Casey: "We should never confuse a concrete wall with border security. It is not."

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. (AP, file)

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. (AP, file)

On the 20th day of the government shutdown, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey rebuked President Donald Trump over his demand for $5.7 billion to build a steel barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a joint conference call with former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Alan Bersin, the Pennsylvania Democrat said the proposed barrier would be ineffective — and that  Democrats have a better solution.

“Democrats are more than willing to significantly invest in smart and effective border security,” Casey said. “We should never confuse a concrete wall with border security. It is not.”

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly promised to build a concrete wall if elected. Last week, Trump announced that his administration would rather seek a steel barrier.

Casey said increased border security is needed most at ports of legal entry to the U.S., not in between. Heroin and cocaine are illegally conveyed by cargo trucks or commercial vehicles, hidden in compartments or mixed in with legal commercial goods, Casey said.

“The cartels know that we have considerably strengthened the areas between the ports of entry, and they simply don’t risk those shipments, rather preferring to break them down and move them through the ports of entry,” said Bersin, who served as commissioner under the Obama administration. “A wall will not deal with this issue.”

Current border czar Kevin McAleenan said it would cost $300 million per year to inspect every vehicle and cargo shipment going through a port of entry — less than Trump’s $5 billion steel barrier, Casey said.

Casey also discussed the need to reopen the government and the shutdown’s impact on furloughed federal workers. Around 800,000 federal workers — 14,000 from Pennsylvania — are without pay during the shutdown.

“All it requires is [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell to schedule a vote and for the president to use a pen and sign it,” Casey said. “The government would be open, and then we could isolate the issue that the president cares so much about, border protection, border security.”

“I am willing to spend weeks on this if necessary to get it right,” he added.

A spokesman from U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s office said the Republican senator does support increased use of physical barriers, surveillance technology and border patrol agents.

“The $5.7 billion request is not for a wall on the entire southern border,” the spokesman said in a written statement. “Rather, it is to maintain and slightly expand the existing 350 miles of security fencing at priority locations identified by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. There is a deal to be made here given that Senate Democrats repeatedly supported billions for this objective prior to President Trump’s election.”

The conference call occurred hours before Friday’s deadline for the 500,000 federal employees who are working during the shutdown. If the government doesn’t reopen tomorrow, they won’t receive  paychecks.

The House has passed six bipartisan appropriations bills and a continuing resolution to fund the Department of Homeland Security through Feb. 8.

“What we are not going to do is have the federal government held hostage to a sound bite from a political rally,” Casey said. “It is like an appropriations hostage taking here and is totally unnecessary.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.