President Trump summoned Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen back from a conference in Europe on Monday as the White House scrambled to respond to a spike in migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But there were no immediate signs that the administration was preparing to follow through on Trump’s threats in recent days to close legal ports of entry altogether.
At Trump’s direction, Nielsen canceled her planned participation in a G-7 ministerial meeting in Paris and returned to Washington, according to a senior official familiar with the internal deliberations.
Moving ahead with a plan announced last week, Nielsen issued written orders to U.S. Customs and Border Protection to deploy “emergency surge operations” to the southern border and dramatically expand a program that requires migrants to wait in Mexico as they apply for asylum in the United States.
Nielsen directed CBP to quickly reassign up to 750 blue-uniformed Office of Field Operations officers to assist Border Patrol agents with the soaring numbers of Central American migrants.
But CBP officials said Monday they had yet to receive any word about potential port closings. Such a move, which Trump threatened last week as a way to pressure Mexico to tighten the flow of undocumented immigrants, would cut off bilateral trade and tourism and wreak economic havoc on both countries while probably having little impact on the migrants, experts said.
“The crisis at our border is worsening, and DHS will do everything in its power to end it,” Nielsen said in a statement. “We will immediately redeploy hundreds of CBP personnel to the border to respond to this emergency.”
Trump kept a low public profile Monday, having returned to Washington late Sunday after three nights at his private Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. A day after his top aides had warned on the Sunday political talk shows that the president was serious about his border threats, Trump made no new mentions of potential port closings on Twitter or anywhere else.
The lack of clarity left the administration in a state of uneasy limbo at a time when CBP officials have said the agency is at a “breaking point,” with an estimated 100,000 migrants having crossed the border in March, the highest monthly total in a decade.
A DHS official said 545 officers had been reassigned as of Monday under Nielsen’s emergency orders, and the secretary is considering a plan to redeploy as many as 2,000 officers from field operations to Border Patrol — a move that could slow pedestrian and motor vehicle traffic at legal ports of entry even if Trump decides not to fully close them.
Theresa C. Brown, a former DHS policy official in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, called the situation unprecedented, given the record number of Central American families that have crossed the border in recent months. She noted that border port closings after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks caused widespread harm to the economies of the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Brown called Trump’s threats a “double-edged sword.”
“It may have an impact on Mexico, and whether that would get them to do what Trump wants is a diplomatic question,” she said. “But it will also have an economic impact on the United States. So the question is, are you hurting Mexico more and in a way that is sufficient to get them to act? I’m generally not a believer in the sticks over carrots approach.”
Nielsen also ordered CBP to immediately expand Migrant Protection Protocols, a new policy that returns asylum seekers to Mexico to await immigration court hearings in the United States. Three weeks ago, officials said they had sent 240 migrants back to Mexico since January, but on Monday, Nielsen ordered them to return hundreds each day — a labor-intensive effort because, under the policy, officials must interview migrants, provide them with an immigration court date and work with Mexico to return them across the border.
Trump has called on Mexico to halt the flow of Central Americans traveling to the United States border. He also threatened to cut foreign aid to the migrants’ homelands in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, for allegedly failing to stop them from leaving — although experts said that could backfire because the economic and security situations in those countries could deteriorate and spark more mass migration without the aid money.
CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said last week that the U.S. immigration system is overwhelmed, with thousands of families and unaccompanied minors surrendering at the border daily, packing holding cells, immigration jails and shelters. Most are funneled into an immigration court system already saddled with an 820,000-case backlog.
The Trump administration is urging Congress to increase its power to detain and deport Central American families and minors. Officials say those seeking asylum are virtually guaranteed release into the United States because of limited detention space and the massive immigration court backlog.
Immigration policy experts said it is virtually impossible to assess Trump’s threats to close the border because the White House has not released any details. CBP operates 27 ports of entry along the border with Mexico, and the president has not indicated how many he might seek to close — or for how long.
“A lot of people are just kind of brushing this off without any details,” said David Inserra, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Was this just a Twitter threat or something [more serious] — we’re not in a position to know that.”
Operationally, closing ports might be reasonably easy to do, officials said. Many of the ports shut down overnight and reopen each morning, so halting the flow of cargo, cars and pedestrians would involve little more than leaving the vehicle lanes closed and reinforcing them with additional officers and personnel.
But the disruption such a move would cause could be enormous, not just halting trade but also potentially stranding U.S. citizens and other authorized travelers in Mexico. At the same time, nearly 90 percent of the 100,000 migrants who arrived last month crossed the border illegally, between U.S. ports of entry, according to CBP officials. That flow could increase if the ports are shut down, experts said.
Brown, the former DHS policy official who left the agency in 2011, said the Trump administration’s lack of apparent planning on the president’s threat to close the border has made the situation appear more chaotic.
Previous administrations would generally coordinate new policies among agencies, as well as with Mexico, and then roll them out “in a coordinated way through operational plans,” Brown said. “That tends not to be what I’ve seen from this administration. It’s order first, then figure out how to act second.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.