Trump bewilders GOP allies on immigration ahead of border visit – POLITICO
President Donald Trump is thrusting his hard-line posture on immigration back to the fore this week, with plans for a Friday trip to the southern border and possible new executive actions to restrict border crossings.
But days after Trump renewed his long-standing threat to shut down the southern border entirely, even administration officials and congressional Republicans were bewildered and guessing at his next move on a defining issue of his presidency.
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And some Hill Republicans warned that any dramatic disruption to regular traffic across the U.S.-Mexico border could bring Trump into a new confrontation with his own party, whose leaders warn that closing parts or all of the border would wreak economic havoc.
On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to require that greater numbers of non-Mexican asylum-seekers stay in Mexico while they wait for their cases to be resolved and to speed up the reassignment of 750 customs officers to process arriving migrants.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is considering closing some of the lanes at ports of entry or preventing certain types of vehicles or people from crossing the border as he tries to force Mexico to increase its enforcement, three outside advisers told POLITICO.
“He’s trying to get Mexico’s attention,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for tighter restrictions on immigration.
The administration already has taken some of those actions, though they have gotten little attention. Customs and Border Protection said in a March 29 memo to shipping companies, importers and other businesses that it would halt a Sunday screening program for commercial trucks at a Nogales, Ariz., port of entry and blamed an “unprecedented humanitarian and border security crisis” for the cutback.
The administration is considering ways to reduce the number of people crossing into the U.S. That could mean closing some lanes at ports of entry or limiting who is allowed to cross to only day workers. Another proposal under discussion would bar passenger vehicles — but not commercial trucks — from crossing the border.
But closing the border or even limiting the flow of people through the ports of entry would not prevent migrants from attempting to cross the border illegally.
Even some people close to the White House called Trump’s remarks “bluster” and predicted he would not close off the border from one of its largest trading partners. Mexico is the United States’s third-largest trading partner with more than $600 billion in cross-border trade last year.
“I understand the president’s frustration but the unintended consequences of that would be bad for everybody: economic, diplomatic,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who questioned how such a move could disrupt negotiations with Mexico to handle migrations from the Northern Triangle. “I take him very seriously. But I think we should have a longer conversation about unintended consequences.”
“It’s part of the way he negotiates, but I’m not sure that’s a particularly good idea and I’m not sure it gets the desired result,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota of the potential closed border. “Tactically it doesn’t get a result and probably has a lot of unintended consequences … there’s a lot of bilateral trade at the border.”
Trump will travel to Calexico, Calif., to tour the border on Friday on a West Coast swing that also includes 2020 campaign fundraising. The White House has not disclosed details of the trip.
Asked whether he thinks Trump is serious about closing the border, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) replied: “Oh, I have no idea. You’d need to ask him that.”
Trump has made cracking down on immigration a central theme of his presidency but has struggled to get his proposals past congressional Republicans. In February, he declared a national emergency to unlock Pentagon funds he can unilaterally steer to a border wall as well as use money from other projects. That action was immediately challenged in court.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said he takes the president “seriously” and wants more details about how it would affect trade and the economy. Romney was one of a dozen Republicans who rebuffed Trump’s emergency request last month, revealing a sharp intraparty divide over border politics.
Most Republicans agree there is a crisis on the border but disagree with tactics like closing ports of entry and the emergency request.
According to a current and a former DHS official familiar with the situation, Trump is once again considering creating a so-called immigration czar, one person in charge of an issue that affects a dozen departments and agencies, including Homeland Security, State, Justice, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services. The position would not need Senate confirmation.
Some of the people being considered are Francis Cissna, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services; Thomas Douglas Homan, former acting director of Immigration and Customs; former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach; and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, according to the former DHS official. Michael Neifach, who worked for former President George W. Bush, was approached about the job last year, the former official said.
The White House did not respond to questions Monday. But on Sunday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway insisted that Trump’s talk of bold action should not be dismissed. “It certainly isn’t a bluff. You can take the president seriously,” she told Fox News.
Trump on Friday renewed past threats to close the border after his administration announced it was at a “breaking point” processing the paperwork at the border, where agents are seeing an influx of migrants. Border Patrol arrested more than 66,000 migrants in February, the highest monthly total since March 2009 — and officials have said the number rose higher still last month. “Mexico is going to have to do something, otherwise I’m closing the border,” declared Trump, who is said to fixate on border-crossing statistics.
Trump has long criticized Mexico for failing to halt Central American migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras from coming to the U.S. border. But he had not previously put a timeline on his threat to close the border.
On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen ordered an expansion of the administration’s “remain in Mexico” strategy, which forces certain non-Mexican asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico pending resolution of their asylum cases in the U.S.
The secretary said her department would expand the policy — formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols — “to return hundreds of additional migrants per day.” The program already has been launched at and between several ports of entry in California and Texas.
In a memo to Customs and Border Protection, Nielsen also called for the agency to accelerate a plan to reassign 750 customs officers to assist with Border Patrol efforts to process and house incoming migrants.
She added in a related announcement that CBP should explore reassigning more personnel, but should notify her if it details more than 2,000 employees to emergency border work.
“The crisis at our border is worsening, and DHS will do everything in its power to end it,” she said in a written statement. “We will not stand idly by while Congress fails to act yet again, so all options are on the table.”
The number of family members intercepted at the southwest border soared in March, according to preliminary CBP statistics. While overall arrests remain below the higher levels of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, the Trump administration argues families and children present unique humanitarian and security issues.
Nielsen last week urged Congress to provide additional resources to deal with the growing number of migrants. In addition, she pressed lawmakers to change immigration laws to permit children to be detained for more than 20 days — the current limit set by a federal court order — and to allow for the swift deportation of unaccompanied minors from Central America.
The Trump administration has implemented a number of hard-line policies to deter illegal immigration and asylum-seekers, only to see a record number of family members caught crossing the border in recent months. Border Patrol estimated that it arrested more than 55,000 family members in March, a 520 percent increase over the same month a year earlier.
Trump last week ordered the State Department to slash aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras because those nations haven’t taken enough action to deter migrants from traveling northward. The State Department informed congressional offices in recent days that it would redirect $450 million in fiscal year 2018 funding to the countries and examine already-committed funds to see if they could be rerouted.
“Cracking down and being harsher has not deterred anybody from coming,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Ultimately, what would stop people from coming is if those countries improve the conditions on the ground.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.