WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump said the US is “full,” and can’t accommodate any more migrants from Latin America, capping a week of heated threats against Mexico over undocumented migration and the flow of illegal drugs.
“Our country is full. Our area is full. The sector is full,” Trump said at a briefing on border security in Calexico, California, on Friday. “Can’t take you anymore. I’m sorry, turn around, that’s the way it is.”
Last week, Trump threatened to close the US border with Mexico to stop a spike in migration. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 66,450 who crossed the border illegally in February, an increase of more than 18,000 from the month before, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has said apprehensions approached 100,000 in March.
Trump backed down after business leaders and Republican lawmakers raised concerns about economic damage from closing the border. Instead, he said he’d impose tariffs on Mexican-built cars if the country doesn’t stem the flow of migrants and illegal drugs over the border in a year.
“I’m totally willing to close the border but Mexico over the last four days has done more than they’ve ever done,” Trump said in Calexico. “Apprehending people by the thousands and bringing them back to their countries.”
Mexican officials have said their immigration policies and enforcement practices haven’t changed this week.
Before departing the White House, Trump reiterated threats to hammer Mexico with tariffs or close the border if the country “stops apprehending and bringing the illegals back to where they came from.”
He also said in a tweet he’s “looking at an economic penalty for the 500 Billion Dollars in illegal drugs that are shipped and smuggled through Mexico and across our Southern Border.”
In his third trip to the border this year, Trump viewed a portion of wall in the city of Calexico, about 120 miles (193 kilometers) east of San Diego, and meet with local law enforcement, a setting he typically uses to reiterate his promises to crack down on undocumented immigration.
Barriers that mostly predate Trump’s presidency, ranging from 18-foot-tall iron fencing to makeshift vehicle obstacles and barbed wire, span 654 miles of the almost-2,000-mile US-Mexico border, mostly in California, Arizona and New Mexico.
Congress last year approved US$641 million for 33 to 37 miles of new fencing in Texas, and work on it began in mid-February.
On Feb 14, Congress approved US$1.375 billion for about 55 miles of new fencing in Texas, but with restrictions such as using only current designs. Trump has said he’ll take billions more from elsewhere in the budget under an emergency declaration and use it for wall construction.
Trump’s Calexico visit came at the end of a tumultuous week that laid bare the president’s growing frustration and limitations in controlling the US southern border.
The administration’s botched efforts have ranged from an attempt to deter migration by separating migrant children from their families to ultimatums against Mexico that have proved too costly to enforce. Trump also withdrew his nominee to run Immigration and Customs Enforcement in order to appoint someone “tougher.”
In an interview with Fox News taped at the border on Friday and aired Saturday, Trump rejected the idea of calling an immigration “summit” with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the leaders of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“No, I don’t need a summit,” Trump said. “We’ve done very well without the summit.” He noted that his administration moved a week ago to cut foreign assistance to the three so-called “Northern Triangle” countries in Central America.
After the outcry from businesses and lawmakers, Trump abruptly changed course on closing the border.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have to close the border because the penalty of tariffs on cars coming into the United States from Mexico at 25% will be massive,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday.
Trump has hammered on immigration since the day he launched his presidential campaign in 2015. It’s remained one of the most divisive issues of his presidency and will certainly feature prominently in his 2020 re-election campaign.
That’s been foreshadowed by rising tensions in recent weeks, as increasing numbers of migrants – including an unprecedented number of families and unaccompanied children – have sought to cross into the US.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Monday that the administration will expedite the return of migrants to Mexico and speed up plans to deploy additional personnel to the border.
Nielsen, who visited the border and met with officials in Texas and Arizona this week, canceled plans to attend security meetings in France this week in order to accompany Trump to Calexico, an official said.
“Next step is to close the Border!,” Trump tweeted March 29, calling on Mexico to stop migrants trying to reach the U.S., where “detention areas are maxed out.”
But by Tuesday, he suggested on Twitter that Mexico was heeding his demand: “Mexico is apprehending large numbers of people at their Southern Border.”
“Mexico, if they stop the people from coming in, we won’t have a lot of people coming at the border,” Trump said in the Fox News interview.
Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, told CNN Friday morning that Trump is to blame for the recent surge of people trying to cross the border into the US by creating a self-fulfilling crisis.
“More are coming because of the president’s threats to use a national emergency to seal the border,” Merkley said.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told reporters he didn’t know what prompted Trump’s message. Mexico’s migration policy has been consistent under AMLO, and there are no plans to change it, Ebrard said.
Closing US entry points would have far-reaching economic consequences and hinder US$1.7 billion in daily cross-border trade.
Supply chains are closely integrated between the two countries, particularly in the auto industry.
Car-makers and farmers, who have already been hit by Trump’s trade war with China, would suffer. The price of avocados already spiked this week.
The US Canada and Mexico last year concluded a revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement that would limit US auto tariffs against Mexico.
The agreement is pending congressional approval. Trump indicated that he didn’t care whether the tariffs he threatened would violate the new trade deal, called the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, saying Mexico would have to “live with it.”
Putting tariffs on Mexico-built autos would risk hurting companies including General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, which import key models from the country including Chevrolet, GMC and Ram full-size pickups.
The US imported 41% more vehicles last year than in 2014, according to Commerce Department data.
Trump has also sparred with Congress on border security and is calling on lawmakers to revamp what he calls the worst immigration laws in the world.
In February, he declared a national emergency to fund the construction of a border wall, after causing a 35-day government shutdown, the longest in US history, in a failed bid to get Congress to allocate the money.
Lawmakers voted to oppose the declaration, prompting Trump to issue the first veto of his presidency.