BELATEDLY, IT occurred to the Trump administration that closing the U.S.-Mexico border, as the president threatened, posed the risk of paralyzing manufacturing assembly lines, leaving grocery shelves bare and throwing the U.S. economy into a tailspin, if not outright recession. Bad idea.
So now the White House has seized on Plan B, which seems to entail leaving commercial traffic intact while locking down the frontier for everyone else, meaning huge numbers of people who cross in both directions daily. This approach is a wild overreaction that would not stop the surge of asylum-seeking migrants. However, it is in keeping with the president’s own instincts, which are untroubled by the prospect of inflicting misery on foreigners.
Each day, about 1 million people cross the 1,954-mile frontier, making it by far the world’s most transited border. The vast majority do so legally. Mr. Trump’s closure would play havoc with those people’s lives, livelihoods, schedules and families. And make no mistake: Many would be U.S. citizens. Meanwhile, desperate refugees would continue to cross the border to request asylum; recently, some have been lining up alongside the existing border fence.
Still, in the hijacked name of border security — or, more to the point, a migrant surge he cannot abide — the president would have it be known that he is prepared to slam the door unless Mexico and Central America’s immigrant-generating countries take steps to impede the flow of migrants.
The demand is reasonable enough — although Mexico has already taken extensive steps to cooperate with Washington, both during the 2014 migration spike and in the current surge. Its government has issued work permits and asylum to thousands of migrants who want to remain in Mexico.
As for El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the so-called Northern Triangle countries from which most migrant families are now leaving in hopes of entering the United States, there are at least two problems. One is their limited capacity to stanch emigration and close their borders in the face of waves of their own citizens fleeing crime, violence and dysfunction. Another is the diminution of Washington’s leverage by Mr. Trump’s foolish decision to halt the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. aid intended to tackle the very problems impelling the current wave of migration.
It’s hard to know where the president’s bluster ends and real action may begin. “I’m not playing games,” he said last Friday, in threatening again to shutter the border after assigning blame to Mexico for the influx of migrants. Four days later, it dawned on him that threatening to choke off trade is, in fact, a game, and a ludicrous one at that.
The number of migrants now flooding the border is a genuine humanitarian crisis, but not one susceptible to solution by hyperbole and bluff. It must be treated with greater resources at the border and also at the source, in Central America. In the absence of a real long-term strategy along those lines, Mr. Trump can huff and puff and blow the doors shut, but the migration problem will not disappear.