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Trump’s border closure threat roils immigration debate

Updated April 3, 2019 - 6:10 pm

WASHINGTON — As the number of migrants apprehended at the Southwest border hits 100,000 per month, President Donald Trump once again is playing a game of high-stakes brinksmanship as he threatens to shut down the border, or parts of it.

Trump plans to visit the border Friday at Calexico, California, where he will showcase new replacement barriers. Later he’ll head to Las Vegas where he will address the Republican Jewish Coalition on Saturday.

Trump hits the border as a senior Department of Homeland Security official told reporters, “Right now the system is on fire.” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen likened the situation to a “Cat 5 hurricane” and ordered a surge of Homeland Security personnel to the border.

Trump’s goal apparently is to win increased border enforcement from Mexico and concessions from Congress.

“Congress must get together and immediately eliminate the loopholes at the Border! If no action, Border, or large sections of the Border, will close. This is a National Emergency!” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.

Later Wednesday, Trump met with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who previously said he opposed a border shutdown.

Asked what he thought would happen if there is a border shutdown, Ducey responded, “I think that’s a hypothetical right now. But if that were the situation, we would be supportive of it and want it to be as short as possible.” Ducey also called on Congress to act to prevent the crisis.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mocked Trump’s call to close the border. “That can’t possibly rise to the level of an idea,” she told Politico.

Manufacturers opposed

Other critics maintain that the threat of closing the border itself inadvertently sends a message to would-be migrants. That message is, “You better get in now before we shut the border down,” said Sarah Pierce of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

The National Association of Manufacturers came out against a closure and the Chamber of Commerce asserted that “even threatening to close the border to legitimate commerce and travel creates a degree of economic uncertainty” that risks losing any gains the Trump administration helped achieve.

Economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC the White House is looking at keeping “freight passage” open to reduce the impact on U.S. manufacturers.

Trump has walked back some of his tough talk as he moved from threatening to shut down the whole border to parts of it.

But Trump also dangled a full closure Tuesday: “Security is more important to me than trade. So we’re going to have a strong border or we’re going to have no border,” the president said.

Mark Krikorian of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies sees Trump’s border threat as “kind of a desperation measure” to prompt Mexico to thwart migrants headed for the U.S. border “because the president can’t get Congress to fix the problem.”

Co-dependent economies

“The problem now is our economies are much more intertwined,” Krikorian told the Review-Journal. That presents a reason to limit the time and scope of a shutdown so American factories don’t have to close and lay off workers.

One “less disruptive” approach, Krikorian said, might be to close crossing points for pedestrian traffic and passenger cars, but make sure that crossing points where trucks and trains move produce and auto parts remain open. Krikorian also proposed a short shutdown.

But the best way to stanch the crisis, Krikorian said, would be to gut the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act so that federal officials can send undocumented child migrants who would not qualify for asylum back to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador under the same rules that apply to minors from Mexico or Canada.

Nielsen has advocated for similar changes.

Pierce told the Review-Journal that any attempt to change the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act would be “dead on arrival with Congress.”

Nielsen has described the law and the 1997 Flores settlement that limits the time which minors can be detained to 20 days as loopholes that “create a functionally open border.”

Trump also directed the State Department to end $450 million in foreign assistance to the so-called Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. “The president has determined that these programs have not effectively prevented illegal immigration from coming to the United States, and they’ve not achieved the desired results.”

A policy paper written by Pierce and Doris Meissner, Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner under President Bill Clinton, warned that cutting aid to Central American countries is “a punitive measure” likely to move the issue “in exactly the wrong direction.”

Democratic strategist Maria Cardona argued Trump should be working to “shore up the economy, make it safer on the ground. We did it with Mexico. We know that it works.”

Net negative migration

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants living in the United States declined from a peak of 6.9 million in 2007 to 5.4 million in 2016. During the same period, the number of undocumented immigrants from other countries has been fairly static – going from 5.3 million in 2007 to 5.2 million in 2016. But the nation is seeing an uptick in the number of immigrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

It’s not always so much what Trump does that sets off alarms in Washington, observed Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, but “what he indicates what he might do.”

But there’s a risk to Trump tossing out the threat of border closure and not carrying through. “This is the risk,” Whalen said. “Do it too often you are the boy who cried wolf.”

If, on the other hand, Trump closes parts of the border for, say, 72 hours, Whalen added, it will create a lot of chaos, “but I’m not sure it changes anything.”

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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