President Trump claimed Friday that “our country is full” as he tried to warn off migrants arriving at the southern border in increasing numbers, and threatened Mexico with automobile tariffs if the country doesn’t step up its efforts to curb migration from Central America.
At the roundtable — which preceded a visit to the international border site in Calexico, a town of 40,000 people about two hours east of San Diego — Trump also continued to dismiss migrants’ claims of persecution, saying they were mainly gang members who had been coached by lawyers.
“It’s a scam, okay? It’s a scam. It’s a hoax,” Trump said. Referring to the recently concluded investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, the president added: “I know about hoaxes. I just went through a hoax.”
Trump’s claims that the United States was “full” prompted immediate pushback from his critics.
“It’s just a ridiculous statement,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said in an interview shortly after the roundtable. “We have agriculture industries across the country that desperately need workers. We have construction industries in California and in other places that desperately need workers, and immigration has always been not just a question of immigration policy, but who we are as a country.”
The rhetoric during Trump’s border tour Friday continued days of escalating threats to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border, although he gradually backed off the pledge before he flew West on a two-day trip that also included fundraisers and a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition this weekend.
Before leaving for California on Friday, Trump said he still “may shut it down at some point,” but that he was focused instead on issuing tariffs against automobiles from Mexico as a potential punitive measure. Since the threat, Mexico has been “absolutely terrific,” Trump said.
“Mexico, I have to say, has been very, very good — you know that — over the last four days, since I talked about shutting down the border,” Trump said on the South Lawn of the White House. “If they continue that, everything will be fine. If they don't, we're going to tariff their cars at 25 percent coming into the United States.”
Trump repeated that threat hours later at the border site in Calexico, even while continuing to praising the Mexico government: “We’re going to shut it down if we have to. We going to tariff the cars, Mexico, if we have to.”
Hours before Trump touched down in Southern California, several hundred protesters gathered in the parking lot next to the border site, chanting anti-Trump slogans in both English and Spanish while a balloon depicting the president as a baby flew overhead.
Speakers at the protest emphasized that people on both sides of the border were one community, and that the agriculture sector couldn’t flourish without Mexican farmworkers. A small number of the president’s defenders — including about a half-dozen women wearing “Make America Great Again” hats — were also there, but dozens of police officers kept everyone away from the border site Trump would visit.
“Trump says Mexicans are rapists and criminals. That is wrong and cruel,” said Jesus Gonzalez, 43, from Calexico. “We don’t need his wall. We need a president with a heart and a brain.”
Another demonstrator, Hildy Roberts, 22, said in Spanish: “We need a president who will listen to all the people.”
Although about 650 miles of the U.S.-Mexico is fenced off, no new border barriers have been erected during Trump’s presidency. Barriers in Calexico, which amount to a 30-foot-tall, 2.25-mile length of steel slats, had replaced an existing fence and were in the works since at least 2009.
Congress gave Trump about $1.375 billion in February to build 55 miles of new fencing, along the Rio Grande Valley area in Texas, although lawmakers restricted the construction to barrier designs that had already been deployed.
“I think the president is always going to be quick to declare a victory even when he didn’t have a hand in the fight,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) said Friday before the border visit.
Perry reported from Calexico, Calif.