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Trump’s threats to close the US-Mexico border, explained

For once, Trump’s tweets might have some basis in reality — but because closing any legal ports of entry would be a disaster, DHS officials say they’ll only do it as a last resort.

Traffic near the San Ysidro port of entry.
The San Ysidro port of entry is the busiest border crossing in the world. President Trump keeps threatening to close the US-Mexico border — which would, in practice, mean shutting down legal crossings like San Ysidro.
John Moore/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has occasionally threatened to “shut down” the US-Mexico border for months. Nothing has happened.

But now, the president is putting an actual timeline on the threat — insisting that he will shut down all or “large portions” of the US-Mexico border “next week” unless Mexico stops all Central American migration into the US.

Mexico is already working to stop Central American immigrants — on Wednesday, officials announced they were deploying the military to an isthmus in southern Mexico to “contain” migrants heading north. But it’s impossible for them to stop all unauthorized migrants from setting foot on US soil. So if the president is to be believed, border “closure” is imminent.

The president should not be believed. Trump can’t physically stop anyone from crossing into the US illegally.

What he can do is shut down ports of entry — preventing people and goods from legally entering the country.

And while no one but Trump likes that idea, it’s possible that it might begin to happen — though it certainly wouldn’t be next week.

On a press call Friday, a senior administration official acknowledged that the Trump administration is currently moving border agents from ports of entry to care for people (especially children and families) apprehended between ports of entry. That reduces capacity at the ports.

And if the number of people coming into the US continues to increase without DHS getting additional resources, the official said, closure of some ports would be “on the table.”

But the official, like everyone else in the Trump administration except Trump, sees port closure as a last resort. Trump’s enthusiasm for closing the border — and claims that the US would somehow save money — still don’t reflect administration willingness to actually do it.

Trump can’t stop people from coming into the US without papers

What Trump is freaking out about is a substantial increase in the number of people being apprehended by US Border Patrol officials at the US-Mexico border. Most of these people are from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and (to a lesser degree) El Salvador; unprecedented numbers of them are families traveling together.

The border isn’t “open” to them — it is illegal to cross into the US without papers between ports of entry, which is why they are arrested. But they’re not trying to evade capture. They often seek out Border Patrol agents to turn themselves in.

These people can’t be physically prevented from entering the US. Many of them are coming by bus to remote parts of the border. Others are crossing through fences, despite the addition of concertina wire along much of the border last fall by deployed US military. Even where there is a physical wall, that wall isn’t literally on the US-Mexico line — it’s a little bit inland. So there’s US soil on both sides of the wall, and migrants walk along the wall — on the “far” side of the wall, but still within the US — until they find someone to turn themselves into.

The problem is that children, families, and asylum seekers can’t be deported quickly. They can’t be deported immediately if they claim a fear of return to their home country, and many of them pass the initial screening to be allowed to present an asylum application. All Central American children traveling without parents are sent to HHS and placed with sponsors while their cases are heard. And families can’t easily be detained while their cases are pending, either.

The Trump administration is pushing Congress to change the treatment of children and families under US law. But administration officials can’t stop people from claiming asylum once on US soil — they tried to do that last fall, by banning illegal entrants from making asylum claims, and were struck down in court.

A refusal to allow people to seek asylum based on some assertion that the border is “closed” would similarly violate the statutory right. And Trump can’t stop people from coming simply by making such a declaration.

What officials can do: slow down or stop legal border crossings to redirect staff to care for unauthorized migrants

What the government does control is legal traffic into the US, via official border crossings: ports of entry. So the only thing Trump could do to “shut down” the border would be to shut down the ports, stopping people and goods from legally entering the US.

The senior administration official on Friday claimed that that was what Trump meant by shutting down the border — and that the tweet wasn’t actually a commitment to shut down the border next week, but a warning that if the current flows of unauthorized families and children continued, the administration would close ports as a last resort.

They’re already pulling staff from the El Paso ports of entry to care for people who entered between ports. “At some point, if the flow continues to increase and we do not get support, we will have to degrade some of the operations at the port,” the senior administration official said. “I think what the president is making clear is that if we have to close ports to take care of all the migrants who are coming, we will do that.”

But “if we have to” is very different from Trump’s barely concealed glee about the prospect. That’s because closing legal border crossings would be a terrible idea.

Literally no one but Trump actually wants to close border crossings

Shutting down ports of entry would be an economic disaster. It would also disrupt the lives of border communities that rely on the flow of people between the US and Mexico — including the major cities of San Diego (and Tijuana) and El Paso (and Ciudad Juarez).

Approximately $1.5 billion worth of commerce happens along the US-Mexico border every day. Nearly half a million people cross the border legally every day through Texas ports alone.

Even reductions in port capacity or temporary shutdowns tend to lead to panic among the business community and local residents. El Paso is currently concerned that already-long waits at the ports could get longer as agents are reassigned to care for unauthorized migrants. When the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego shut down for a few hours in November, as agents responded with force (including tear gas) to an organized march of asylum seekers, the temporary closure cost about $5.3 million in lost business revenue.

Of course, making it harder for people to cross legally generally only encourages people to cross illegally — something that’s already been seen as the US has limited the number of asylum-seekers it allows to present themselves at ports.

Trump’s Friday tweets actually tacitly acknowledge that drug smuggling is more likely to happen at ports than between them — something he generally explicitly lies about. But drug smugglers are less likely than, say, banana exporters to just throw up their hands if a port is shut down, rather than finding other illegal ways to get drugs into the US.

Every time Trump tweets something like this, border-state legislators and business associations react with alarm. Generally, DHS officials stress that they understand the importance of keeping the ports open. But Trump by all appearances does not.

It’s not that “shutting down the border” is the administration’s only proposed solution — Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen wrote a letter to Congress on Thursday asking for changes to the law regarding family detention and child deportation, and predicting that they would need more funding. But it’s an idea Trump himself can’t let go of. And now, for the first time — if for completely different reasons — there is an actual prospect that the administration will do something that looks vaguely similar to Trump’s threats.

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