President Donald Trump is threatening to close ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border this week, saying the detention centers are “maxed out” due to a recent increase in migration.
Senior administration officials made the rounds on the Sunday news shows reaffirming the president’s intention to shut down the border. White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said said it would take “something dramatic” for Trump to not close the border. Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said Trump’s threat “certainly isn’t a bluff,” citing national security concerns.
But would shutting down a border actually do anything to mitigate migration to the United States? Experts are dubious, suggesting it might actually do the opposite.
“We think these policies are actually accelerating arrivals,” Sarah Pierce, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told ThinkProgress. “When these policies are announced, there is a rush to the border to get to the United States before the next hammer falls.”
Pierce points to the zero tolerance policy at the U.S.-Mexico border that resulted in the separation of thousands of families in the spring and summer of 2018. While the policy was allegedly constructed to deter Central American migrants from embarking on the dangerous journey to the United States, it had the opposite effect.
U.S. Border Patrol agents detained 6,367 unaccompanied children in May 2018, a nearly 50% increase from the previous month. Compared to May 2017 data, the number of unaccompanied children rose by 329% and the number of “family units” surged by 435% in 2018.
Recent numbers from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) suggest it apprehended 55,000 family units in March — the highest since the agency began record keeping that data in 2012.
The administration’s assertion, however, that levels of undocumented immigration are at their highest in years isn’t completely based in reality. Numbers of apprehended family units along the border have been steadily increasing, but it is mainly in line with seasonal migration patterns. Immigration is also still nowhere near the historic highs of the early 2000s, when it was largely single men from Mexico and routinely surpassed one million apprehensions.
The increase in migration over the last year, particularly between ports of entry, is in part a response to the administration’s own immigration policies.
Last year, the Department of Homeland Security began limiting, or “metering,” the number of asylum seekers that are processed each day. This resulted in months-long wait times at ports of entry for families fleeing violence in countries in Central America. Desperate families were forced to cross between ports of entry and turn themselves into Border Patrol agents. Seeking asylum is legal whether or not the asylee presents themselves at a port of entry. Ironically enough, should the border close, families planning to apply for asylum in the United States will have to cross “illegally” between ports of entry.
DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen issued a memo Monday directing the expansion of Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico. The policy, which is currently being challenged in the courts, would force asylum seekers to apply for asylum and wait out their cases in Mexico, instead of in the United States. As ThinkProgress has previously reported, the policy would further endanger the lives of already vulnerable asylum seekers.
At the same time, the Trump administration announced it is cutting aid to three Central American countries — El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — in retaliation for not doing enough to mitigate the immigration “crisis.” Experts believe that aid to the northern triangle countries is the only way of addressing the “root causes” of migration.
The administration’s tentative plan to close the southern border is also lacking any real details or planning, similar to its zero tolerance policy. According to The Washington Post, Border Patrol officials have not been instructed to prepare for a possible shutdown, and neither has the Pentagon, which currently has over 5,000 troops deployed at the border. The repercussions of a border closure, should it be implemented, could be far-reaching.
“If [the administration] closes ports of entry, it could impact people who legally enter the country, whether it’s U.S. citizens, green card holders, or asylum seekers,” Pierce said.
Immigration lawyers have cautioned that some of their clients who had their visas processed in Mexico will have to book flights to the United States instead of crossing at ports of entry like El Paso.
The president does have broad authority to deny certain people entry into the United States, as was illustrated with the Muslim Ban in 2017. That policy, however, was challenged in the courts and went through multiple iterations before ultimately being implemented under the guise of national security.
The administration — despite arguing that the national emergency declaration in February was necessary for national security reasons — will likely have difficulty making that argument in court. There are already several legal challenges to the declaration and 58 former national security experts stated in a letter that they “are aware of no emergency that remotely justifies” the national emergency declaration.