More than halfway through President Trump’s first term, unauthorized immigration has surged to the highest levels in a decade, leaving him searching for quick-fix solutions and his administration roiling with internal tensions over how to address a problem the president promised to solve.
Trump sought to project confidence and strength on a visit to a renovated section of border fencing in Calexico, Calif., on Friday, amid warnings from federal authorities that the U.S. immigration system is at a “breaking point” in handling a record influx of Central American families.
But his public indecision over the past week — threatening in a tweet to close the border with Mexico before reversing himself six days later — revealed an administration that is grasping to deal with a humanitarian challenge without a well-defined strategy and with significant divisions within Trump’s team.
A sign of the discord came Friday when the White House yanked the Senate nomination of a longtime federal immigration official, Ronald Vitiello, to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement after a senior White House adviser, Stephen Miller, lobbied Trump to cut him loose, according to officials familiar with the matter.
Trump told reporters he would go in “a tougher direction” in finding a new nominee.
To his critics, the episodes were emblematic of the failures of a president whose policies have exacerbated the migration surge, as he has focused on outdated models of hard-line deterrence and punishment developed more than a decade ago to stop Mexican men from sneaking into the country in search of jobs. Those methods, including a border wall, are largely ineffective in keeping out the asylum-seeking families who are driving the recent immigration spike, immigration experts said.
In some cases, human smugglers have used Trump’s hard-line threats as “a sales tactic” to drum up business, warning would-be migrants that they must enter the United States before the president cracks down, said Theresa C. Brown, a career policy official at the Department of Homeland Security who left in 2011.
“He ran on, ‘No one else can fix it and I can.’ I get that. It’s very attractive to a public that has seen a complicated issue linger for a long time,” Brown said. “Except it’s not something that is easily fixable. His instincts to take hard stances and do tough talk have not had the impact he had hoped, and now he’s proposing harsher things that will hurt us as much or more than anybody else.”
But Trump aides have expressed bewilderment that a president who was vilified by his political rivals for warning of a border crisis since his 2016 campaign is now being blamed for, in their view, being right. They argue that the unwillingness of Democrats and the mainstream media to acknowledge the extent of the problem until recently has contributed to the administration’s struggles to curb the flow. They also point to opposition from Democrats to embracing any of the legislative remedies the administration has proposed, or to countering with a plan of their own, as evidence that the opposition party is more interested in making Trump look bad than in addressing the migrant surge.
“I see that some of our biggest opponents over the last two days have said, ‘You know what, it really is an emergency,’ ” Trump said during his border tour in Calexico. The border surge “is a direct result of the obstruction by Democrats in Congress.”
The administration’s reliance on increasingly tougher rhetoric and policy proposals has played out vividly over the past few months. In December and January, Trump shut down parts of the federal government for a record 35 days in an unsuccessful bid to win congressional funding for a border wall. He then declared a “national emergency” to circumvent Congress for roughly $6.7 billion for the wall and vetoed a bill passed by both chambers to overturn his order.
Yet despite Trump’s public fight, the number of arrests at the southern border skyrocketed from 58,000 in January to nearly 100,000 in March, according to Department of Homeland Security officials.
In reaction, Trump turned up the rhetoric another notch. Last weekend, he directed the State Department to halt foreign aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, even though experts said the move could exacerbate migration by further destabilizing those nations. And Trump’s threat to close legal ports along the 2,000-mile border with the United States’ third-largest trading partner sparked fierce opposition from Republicans and U.S. business leaders who warned of economic catastrophe.
“All of these actions alone are problematic, but when you compound them, you’re really left shaking your head,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) said in an interview. Trump “lacks a fundamental understanding of how this works, and generally wants to stoke fear and racism among folks who don’t believe in offering asylum.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who visited Mexico and Central American countries in recent months, said officials cited Trump’s threats to seal the border as “driving this new surge.”
But the administration contends it has for months been warning of problems that Democrats have played down, while making no effort to work with Republicans to address an immigration system overwhelmed by the surge of migrant families.
In a four-page letter to Congress in late March requesting emergency resources, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned of a “dire situation” that had put the immigration system on the verge of a “meltdown.”
Federal authorities had 1,200 unaccompanied minors and 6,600 families in custody, she wrote, and had apprehended nearly 100 groups of more than 100 migrants traveling together, an unprecedented situation. “This is one of the most serious crises the Department of Homeland Security has ever faced,” she stated.
Nielsen also asked Congress to grant DHS the power to immediately deport minors from Central America, who have stronger legal protections than those from Mexico, and to detain families with children for longer than three weeks as they await asylum hearings, which can take more than a year because of court backlogs.
Speeding up deportations and detaining families, rather than releasing them into the United States — a policy Trump derisively calls “catch-and-release” — have been at the top of the administration’s immigration agenda. But those proposals are nonstarters for Democrats.
“Congress has to act. . . . They have to get rid of the whole asylum system because it doesn’t work,” Trump told reporters Friday. “And frankly, we should get rid of judges.”
Yet the president demonstrated a poor grasp of the facts during his border tour in Calexico. Referring to the 1997 Flores court settlement, which bars the federal government from detaining minors for more than 20 days, Trump blamed it on “Judge Flores, whoever you may be.”
In fact, the case was named after Jenny Flores, a 15-year-old from El Salvador.
Last November, a federal judge in San Francisco blocked the Trump administration’s attempts to ban Central Americans from seeking asylum on national security grounds. Trump’s focus on ending asylum has undermined alternatives proposed by his Republican allies, including Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), to add hundreds of immigration judges to help clear the backlog of asylum hearings.
“Trump wants a shortcut, but there’s no shortcut,” said John Sandweg, a high-ranking DHS official in the Obama administration. “We have to deal with the problem as a complex issue that requires complex solutions. It will take time and money and political will.”
Democrats say Trump’s hard-line tactics have made bipartisan compromise on immigration even more difficult. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said she believes that Trump’s aims have “never been about trying to address” the flow of migrants but rather to use immigration “as a wedge” to rally his conservative base.
On Friday, Trump’s campaign posted a video on Facebook featuring clips of Democratic presidential candidates, including former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), opposing the border wall and rejecting the notion of a border crisis.
And on the same day Nielsen warned in her letter to Congress that migrant children, two of whom died in federal custody last fall, are arriving “sicker than ever before,” Trump mocked the asylum system at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The migrants are coached by lawyers to say, “I’m very afraid for my life,” he said, even though they look as strong and fit as “the heavyweight champion of the world.”
“It’s a big, fat con job, folks,” the president said.