As Trump tries to curb il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, rhetoric gets tougher, but so­lu­tion is elu­sive

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By David Naka­mura and Se­ung Min Kim

More than half­way through Pres­i­dent Trump’s first term, unau­tho­rized im­mi­gra­tion has surged to the high­est lev­els in a decade, leav­ing him search­ing for quick-fix so­lu­tions and his ad­min­is­tra­tion roil­ing with in­ter­nal ten­sions over how to ad­dress a prob­lem the pres­i­dent promised to solve.

Trump sought to project con­fi­dence and strength on a visit to a ren­o­vated sec­tion of bor­der fenc­ing in Calexico, Calif., Fri­day, amid warnings from fed­eral au­thor­i­ties that the U.S. im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem is at a “break­ing point” in han­dling a record in­flux of Cen­tral Amer­i­can fam­i­lies.

But his pub­lic in­de­ci­sion over the past week – threat­en­ing in a tweet to close the south­ern bor­der with Mex­ico be­fore rev­ers­ing him­self six days later – re­vealed an ad­min­is­tra­tion that is grasp­ing to deal with a hu­man­i­tar­ian chal­lenge with­out a well-de­fined strat­egy and with sig­nif­i­cant di­vi­sions among Trump’s team.

A sign of the dis­cord came Fri­day when the White House yanked the Se­nate nom­i­na­tion of a long­time fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cial, Ronald Vi­tiello, to lead Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, af­ter a se­nior White House ad­viser, Stephen Miller, lob­bied Trump to cut him loose, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter.

Trump told re­porters he would go in “a tougher di­rec­tion” in find­ing a new nom­i­nee.

To his crit­ics, the episodes were em­blem­atic of the fail­ures of a pres­i­dent whose poli­cies have ex­ac­er­bated the mi­gra­tion surge, as he has fo­cused on out­dated mod­els of hard-line de­ter­rence and pun­ish­ment de­vel­oped more than a decade ago to stop Mex­i­can men from sneak­ing into the coun­try in search of jobs. Those tac­tics, in­clud­ing a bor­der wall, are largely in­ef­fec­tive in keep­ing out the asy­lum-seek­ing fam­i­lies who are driv­ing the re­cent spike, im­mi­gra­tion ex­perts said.

In some cases, hu­man smug­glers have used Trump’s hard-line threats as “a sales tac­tic” to drum up busi­ness, warn­ing would-be mi­grants that they must en­ter the United States be­fore the pres­i­dent cracks down, said Theresa Brown, a ca­reer pol­icy of­fi­cial at the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity who left in 2011.

“He ran on, ‘No one else can fix it and I can.’ I get that. It’s very at­trac­tive to a pub­lic that has seen a com­pli­cated is­sue linger for a long time,” Brown said. “Ex­cept it’s not some­thing that is eas­ily fix­able. His in­stincts to take hard stances and do tough talk have not had the im­pact he had hoped, and now he’s propos­ing harsher things that will hurt us as much or more than any­body else.”

But Trump aides have ex­pressed be­wil­der­ment that a pres­i­dent who was vil­i­fied by his po­lit­i­cal ri­vals for warn­ing of a bor­der cri­sis since his 2016 cam­paign is now be­ing blamed for, in their view, be­ing right. They ar­gued that the un­will­ing­ness of Democrats and the main­stream me­dia to acknowledge the ex­tent of the prob­lem un­til re­cently has con­trib­uted to the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strug­gles to curb the flow. They also point to op­po­si­tion from Democrats to em­brace any of the leg­isla­tive reme­dies the ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­posed, or to counter with any plan of their own, as ev­i­dence that the op­po­si­tion party is more in­ter­ested in mak­ing Trump look bad than ad­dress­ing the migrant surge.

“I see that some of our big­gest op­po­nents over last two days have said, ‘You know what, it re­ally is an emer­gency,’ ” Trump said dur­ing his bor­der tour in Calexico. The bor­der surge “is a di­rect re­sult of the ob­struc­tion by Democrats in Congress.”

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­liance on in­creas­ingly tougher rhetoric and pol­icy pro­pos­als has played out vividly over the past few months. In De­cem­ber and Jan­uary, Trump shut down parts of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment for a record 35 days in an un­suc­cess­ful bid to win con­gres­sional fund­ing for a bor­der wall. He then de­clared a “na­tional emer­gency” to cir­cum­vent Congress for roughly $6.7 bil­lion for the wall and ve­toed a bill passed by both cham­bers to over­turn his or­der.

Yet de­spite Trump’s pub­lic fight, the num­ber of ar­rests at the south­ern bor­der sky­rock­eted from 58,000 in Jan­uary to nearly 100,000 in March, ac­cord­ing to De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials.

In re­ac­tion, Trump turned up the rhetoric another notch. Last week­end, he di­rected the State De­part­ment to halt for­eign aid to Gu­atemala, Hon­duras and El Sal­vador, even though ex­perts said the move could ex­ac­er­bate mi­gra­tion by fur­ther desta­bi­liz­ing those na­tions. And Trump’s threat to close le­gal ports along the 2,000-mile bor­der with the United States’ third­largest trad­ing part­ner sparked fierce op­po­si­tion from Repub­li­cans and U.S. busi­ness lead­ers who warned of eco­nomic catas­tro­phe.

“All of th­ese ac­tions alone are prob­lem­atic, but when you com­pound them, you’re re­ally left shak­ing your head,” Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., said in an in­ter­view. Trump “lacks a fun­da­men­tal un­der­stand­ing of how this works, and gen­er­ally wants to stoke fear and racism among folks who don’t be­lieve in of­fer­ing asy­lum.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who vis­ited Mex­ico and Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries in re­cent months, said of­fi­cials cited Trump’s threats to seal the bor­der as “driv­ing this new surge.”

But the ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tends it has for months been warn­ing of prob­lems that Democrats have played down, while mak­ing no ef­fort to work with Repub­li­cans to ad­dress an im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem over­whelmed by the surge of migrant fam­i­lies.

In a four-page let­ter to Congress in late March re­quest­ing emer­gency re­sources, Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Kirst­jen Nielsen warned of a “dire sit­u­a­tion” that had put the im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem on the verge of a “melt­down.”

Fed­eral au­thor­i­ties had 1,200 unac­com­pa­nied mi­nors and 6,600 fam­i­lies in cus­tody, she wrote, and had ap­pre­hended nearly 100 groups of more than 100 mi­grants trav­el­ing to­gether, an un­prece­dented sit­u­a­tion.

“This is one of the most se­ri­ous crises the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity has ever faced,” she stated.

Nielsen also asked Congress to grant DHS the power to im­me­di­ately de­port mi­nors from Cen­tral Amer­ica, who have stronger le­gal pro­tec­tions than those from Mex­ico, and to de­tain fam­i­lies with chil­dren for longer than three weeks as they await asy­lum hear­ings, which can take more than a year be­cause of court back­logs.

Speed­ing up de­por­ta­tions and de­tain­ing fam­i­lies, rather than re­leas­ing them into the United States – a pol­icy Trump de­ri­sively calls “catch-an­drelease” – have been at the top of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s im­mi­gra­tion agenda. But those pro­pos­als are non­starters for Democrats.

“Congress has to act. … They have to get rid of the whole asy­lum sys­tem be­cause it doesn’t work,” Trump told re­porters Fri­day. “And frankly, we should get rid of judges.”

Yet the pres­i­dent demon­strated a poor grasp of the facts dur­ing his bor­der tour in Calexico. Re­fer­ring to the 1997 Flo­res court set­tle­ment, which bars the fed­eral gov­ern­ment from de­tain­ing mi­nors for more than 20 days, Trump blamed it on “Judge Flo­res, who­ever you may be.” In fact, the case was named af­ter Jenny Flo­res, a 15-year-old from El Sal­vador.

Last Novem­ber, a fed­eral judge in San Fran­cisco blocked the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s at­tempts to ban Cen­tral Amer­i­cans from seek­ing asy­lum on na­tional se­cu­rity grounds. Trump’s fo­cus on end­ing asy­lum has un­der­mined al­ter­na­tives pro­posed by his Re­pub­li­can al­lies, in­clud­ing Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, to add hun­dreds of ad­di­tional im­mi­gra­tion judges to help clear the back­log of asy­lum hear­ings.

“Trump wants a short­cut, but there’s no short­cut,” said John Sandweg, a high-rank­ing DHS of­fi­cial in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. “We have to deal with the prob­lem as a com­plex is­sue that re­quires com­plex so­lu­tions. It will take time and money and po­lit­i­cal will.”

Democrats ar­gue that Trump’s hard-line tac­tics have made bi­par­ti­san com­pro­mise on im­mi­gra­tion even more dif­fi­cult. Rep. Pramila Jaya­pal, DWash., said she be­lieves that Trump’s aims have “never been about try­ing to ad­dress” the flow of mi­grants but rather to use im­mi­gra­tion “as a wedge” to rally his con­ser­va­tive base. On Fri­day, Trump’s cam­paign posted a video on Face­book fea­tur­ing clips of Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates op­pos­ing the bor­der wall and re­ject­ing the no­tion of a bor­der cri­sis.

And on the same day Nielsen warned in her let­ter to Congress that migrant chil­dren, two of whom died in fed­eral cus­tody last fall, are ar­riv­ing “sicker than ever be­fore,” Trump mocked the asy­lum sys­tem at a cam­paign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The mi­grants are coached by lawyers to say, “I’m very afraid for my life,” Trump said, even though they look as strong and fit as “the heavy­weight cham­pion of the world.”

“It’s a big, fat con job, folks,” the pres­i­dent said.

Los An­ge­les Times

Pro­test­ers march through down­town Calexico, Calif., ahead of Pres­i­dent Trump’s visit Fri­day. Some have crit­i­cized his ad­min­is­tra­tion for mak­ing the sit­u­a­tion at the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der worse.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.