Or maybe just the latter!
The immediate spur for Trump’s flirtation with closing the border is a spike in the number of families arriving at the border in recent months. That increase has meant shifting resources from Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity on the U.S. interior and pulling agents from ports of entry — authorized border crossing points — to help manage the new arrivals. Many of those arriving at the border quickly apply for asylum in the United States, adding to a backlog of asylum cases.
What Trump is apparently proposing is shuttering those ports of entry, a move that would indeed have immediate negative repercussions. Every day, nearly $2 billion in goods and services cross the border between the United States and Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of people do, too, both tourists and workers. The United States would run out of avocados in three weeks, according to an industry analyst, part of the 44 percent of the American produce market that comes in over the southern border.
But it’s not clear how this would stem the number of asylum seekers. As Trump noted in the Oval Office, those seeking asylum in the United States (often to escape violence in Central America) need simply to be on U.S. soil when making a claim. Often, migrants will cross the border illegally between ports of entry and turn themselves over to Border Patrol agents to make an asylum claim. Closing the border wouldn’t prevent that from happening — while potentially shutting down cross-border commerce.
Trump’s National Economic Council director, Larry Kudlow, offered a potential workaround for that latter problem on Tuesday, telling reporters that he was considering keeping open truck lanes at ports of entry to keep commerce flowing.
The flaw in that plan? Large trucks are frequently used to smuggle drugs and migrants into the country. Last July, 64 migrants were caught being smuggled in the cabs or trailers of semi trucks. In January, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced the largest fentanyl bust in the agency’s history, discovering 254 pounds of powder and pills hidden in a truck — a truck that was hauling cucumbers across the border.
“You know when we close that border, we will stop hundreds of millions of dollars of drugs from coming in,” Trump said Tuesday. “Tremendous amounts of drugs come through our southern border.”
This is closer to the truth than Trump usually gets on the subject. A wall has never been likely to tamp down on drug smuggling, as most drugs that cross into the United States from Mexico come through ports of entry. Closing those ports of entry would force that smuggling to other points along the border or force other methods, like using light aircraft. The drug economy, like the broader economy, would be hurt by the closure — but the drug economy might recover more adroitly.
In the big picture, Trump’s argument about a security threat at the southern border has never been all that well established. There’s broad agreement that the recent influx of migrants has strained government resources, but it’s not clear that this influx threatens national security. As Congress debated funding for a wall on the border, we noted consistently that Trump’s rhetoric about possible terrorists or criminals was inflated or inaccurate.
In other words, Trump claims to be willing to risk the economy by shutting the border to make America more secure. Beyond denting or rerouting the drug flow, though, it’s not clear how America would be made more secure. (Immigrants, as you’ve likely heard many times by now, are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.) Closing the border would also likely shift migrants seeking entry to illegal crossings, where many would then seek asylum anyway.
Of course, it’s likely that Trump doesn’t really plan to close the border. He sees threats like this as bargaining chips and may simply intend for nothing more than that.
Which, as he admits, would be better for the economy.