Dras­tic border ac­tions afoot

Trump threat­ens to halt for­eign aid, close en­tries

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Alan Gomez

As the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion gets rolling, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is fo­cus­ing on one of his fa­vorite top­ics: im­mi­gra­tion.

Over the past sev­eral days, the pres­i­dent has warned he’ll cut off hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in aid to Cen­tral Amer­i­can na­tions where mi­grants come from, and he threat­ened to seal off the en­tire south­ern border. That fol­lows his de­ci­sion to de­clare a na­tional emer­gency so he can ex­pand the border wall with­out ap­proval from Congress.

All that is hap­pen­ing as the United States tries to rene­go­ti­ate its trade agree­ment with Mex­ico and Canada.

“Mex­ico must use its very strong im­mi­gra­tion laws to stop the many thou­sands of peo­ple try­ing to get into

the USA,” Trump tweeted Mon­day morn­ing. “Our de­ten­tion ar­eas are maxed out & we will take no more il­le­gals. Next step is to close the Border! This will also help us with stopping the Drug flow from Mex­ico!”

Tom Jawetz, vice pres­i­dent for im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy at the liberal Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, said the pres­i­dent’s ac­tions rep­re­sent a purely po­lit­i­cal strat­egy to cre­ate the im­pres­sion of chaos along the border. Trump “needs there to be chaos so he can have some­thing to fight against,” he said.

Mi­grant fam­i­lies

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion pointed to a mas­sive in­crease in the num­ber of peo­ple try­ing to cross the U.S.-Mex­i­can border in re­cent months as its rea­son for declar­ing a na­tional emer­gency.

Over­all, il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion across the south­ern border re­mains lower than the peak years through­out the 1990s and 2000s, when the Border Pa­trol regularly ap­pre­hended more than 1 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants a year.

The makeup of peo­ple cross­ing that border has changed in re­cent years. Back then, sin­gle Mex­i­can men look­ing for work and try­ing to evade Border Pa­trol agents made up the ma­jor­ity of un­doc­u­mented border crossers. Now, most crossers are Cen­tral Amer­i­can fam­i­lies seek­ing out Border Pa­trol agents and turn­ing them­selves in to re­quest asy­lum.

In Fe­bru­ary, Border Pa­trol agents ap­pre­hended 66,450 peo­ple il­le­gally cross­ing the south­ern border. A record high 36,174 of those (54 per­cent) were mem­bers of fam­i­lies, and 6,825 (10 per­cent) were un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors, ac­cord­ing to Border Pa­trol data.

Those num­bers have steadily in­creased in re­cent months, and Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said the num­ber of il­le­gal cross­ings in March will be even higher.

Aid to Cen­tral Amer­ica

Trump ac­cused the lead­er­ship of El Sal­vador, Hon­duras and Gu­atemala – the “North­ern Tri­an­gle” coun­tries where most mi­grant fam­i­lies come from – of not do­ing enough to stop their peo­ple from head­ing to the USA.

Fri­day, Trump an­nounced he will try to cut off en­tirely more than $500 mil­lion in aid ded­i­cated to the North­ern Tri­an­gle in the 2019 fis­cal year.

It's unclear whether Trump can cut off all that money with­out the help of Congress.

“Amer­i­can aid to Cen­tral Amer­ica is not char­ity, but an in­vest­ment in our na­tional se­cu­rity – full stop!” wrote U.S. Global Lead­er­ship Coali­tion Pres­i­dent and CEO Liz Schrayer. “The idea of sus­pend­ing the rel­a­tively small, but es­sen­tial for­eign as­sis­tance to the re­gion will only ex­ac­er­bate the root causes driv­ing peo­ple to flee their homes – bru­tal vi­o­lence, hunger, and in­sta­bil­ity.”

Seal­ing south­ern border

If Trump can cut off for­eign aid to Cen­tral Amer­ica, he may fol­low through on an­other oft-re­peated threat: to seal off the en­tire south­ern border.

Nearly 50 cross­ings would be closed for en­try and exit, stopping the hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple and about $1.7 bil­lion in goods and ser­vices that cross each day, ac­cord­ing to the State De­part­ment.

Trump wouldn’t be the first pres­i­dent to limit cross­ings along the border.

Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush par­tially closed the south­ern border af­ter the 9/11 at­tacks, re­quir­ing full in­spec­tions of ev­ery in­com­ing pedes­trian and ve­hi­cle that led to days-long waits. Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan or­dered sim­i­lar re­stric­tions in 1985 af­ter the kidnapping and mur­der of a DEA agent in Mex­ico.

Those clo­sures were not nearly as con­tro­ver­sial, and Trump’s move would prob­a­bly draw law­suits, as many other of his im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment ac­tions have faced in the past two years.

Border Pa­trol is short­handed

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing the sit­u­a­tion along the south­ern border is the fact that the Border Pa­trol is try­ing to man­age the in­creased flow of fam­i­lies as it’s strug­gling to hire, and sim­ply re­tain, agents.

Dur­ing his first week in of­fice, Trump or­dered the agency to hire an ad­di­tional 5,000 Border Pa­trol agents. Internal watch­dog re­ports show that the agency prob­a­bly won’t meet that de­mand be­cause of dif­fi­cul­ties find­ing qual­i­fied ap­pli­cants and internal mis­man­age­ment that hurt its ef­forts to hire more peo­ple.

The re­sult: In 2018, the agency added 118 agents, only three of which were sta­tioned along the south­ern border.

That partly ex­plains why Trump has de­ployed thou­sands of Na­tional Guards­men and ac­tive-duty mil­i­tary troops to the south­ern border.

Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion Com­mis­sioner Kevin McAleenan an­nounced last week that he would re­as­sign 750 cus­toms of­fi­cers from ports around the coun­try to help process asy­lum-seek­ing fam­i­lies along the south­ern border. Mon­day, Nielsen said that num­ber could surge to 2,000 if nec­es­sary.

Re­leas­ing mi­grant fam­i­lies

Dur­ing his trip to El Paso, Texas, last week, McAleenan said the border had reached its “break­ing point,” forc­ing his agency to use ex­treme mea­sures.

One of those changes has been to start quickly re­leas­ing mi­grants into the streets of border com­mu­ni­ties, break­ing with the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s prac­tice of de­tain­ing them as long as pos­si­ble.

Un­der U.S. law, the Border Pa­trol is not sup­posed to hold any mi­grant longer than 72 hours. Usu­ally, the Border Pa­trol hands mi­grants over to Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, which can de­tain fam­i­lies for up to 20 days. All of those fa­cil­i­ties are over­crowded, lead­ing the Border Pa­trol to skip the trans­fer to ICE and re­lease mi­grants to shel­ters.

From Ari­zona to Texas, com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions have stepped in to help the stranded mi­grants.

ALAN GOMEZ/USA TO­DAY

San Ysidro Port Direc­tor Sid­ney Aki, right, leads a tour of the border en­try check­point last fall in San Diego.

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