President Trump delivered an ultimatum to Congress on Tuesday, saying either lawmakers change immigration laws to stop the surge of illegal immigrants streaming north from Central America or he will take unilateral action to “close” the border.
The mere talk of such a move set alarms ringing among business groups, which said the economic consequences would be a disaster and would harm the same farmers and manufacturers already reeling from tariff battles.
But Mr. Trump said he is willing to take the risk of deeper economic pain if it means stopping illegal immigration.
“Security is more important to me than trade,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. “We’re going to have a strong border, or we’re going to have a closed border.”
Mr. Trump has become increasingly frustrated by headlines proclaiming soaring numbers of migrants attempting to jump the border, and Department of Homeland Security authorities struggling to find tools to respond.
“Right now, the system is on fire,” a senior department official told reporters Tuesday morning. “We are genuinely in an emergency.”
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen canceled her work trip to Europe to return to the U.S. to oversee the response. She has ordered officers to be pulled from legal ports of entry and deployed to help the Border Patrol process and transport the migrants they are catching. She also ordered the expansion of a pilot program to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico while their cases are pending.
Late Tuesday she also announced she creation of a special “Interagency Border Emergency Cell tasked with coordinating the government’s efforts. She named 30-year Border Patrol Agent Manuel “Manny” Padilla as the head of the group and gave him use of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response center to use as an operations center.
The goal is to try to change the incentive structure that is drawing Central Americans to make the trip in record numbers through Mexico and to the U.S. Mr. Trump said Mexico needs to do more, but he added that the nation’s southern neighbor has started arresting migrants in the thousands in the past few days.
He also has turned his ire on Congress, which he said must change the policies that allow illegal immigrants to game the U.S. system and ensure it takes years to try to deport them. By then, they have put down roots, disappeared into the shadows and ignored their deportation orders, analysts say.
The president said he needs to see action by both Mexico and Congress.
“If they don’t, or if we don’t make a deal with Congress, the border’s going to be closed, 100 percent,” he said. “We’re going to close the border. That’s going to be it. Or, we’re going to close large sections of the border, maybe not all of it. But, it’s the only way we’re getting a response, and I’m totally ready to do it.” Key members of Congress waved aside his ultimatum.
“The economic disaster to the country would be huge,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “My guess is cooler heads will prevail upon the president not to do it. It would be a disaster for him and for the country.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, also warned Mr. Trump about severe economic consequences.
The National Association of Manufacturers said U.S. farmers, manufacturers and other businesses would lose $726 million per day for every day the border is closed.
The group said 1 million U.S. manufacturing jobs “would be immediately at risk” from shutting off cross-border commerce and another 3.3 million jobs related to exports would be endangered.
The National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the solution is a broad bill that would combine security with amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants — and perhaps a new flow for guest workers.
Asked about the potential economic impact, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said closing the border is “not our first choice,” but she added that the president’s top priority is to protect lives.
“Democrats are leaving us absolutely no choice at this point,” Mrs. Sanders said. “It may be that it’s the best decision that we close the border.”
The Homeland Security official who briefed reporters said plans to close border crossings have been in place for years.
“The bottom line is all options are on the table right now,” the official said.
Even without an official order to close the border, the crisis is forcing delays. The officers pulled from duty at ports of entry to assist the Border Patrol have resulted in fewer lanes and understaffing at some ports.
Wait times at the border crossing at Brownsville, Texas, reached 180 minutes Monday, twice the peak a year ago, officials said.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC that the administration is looking at ways to minimize economic pain and keep truck lanes open in the event of a border closure.
But officials at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that won’t help the 500,000 tourists, students, shoppers and others who cross the U.S.-Mexico border each day, nor the stores, schools and other border businesses that rely on that commerce.
“The nature of the U.S.-Mexico commercial relationship, it’s not just about goods being shipped on trucks or trains. It’s broader than that,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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