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Trump tours border barrier as part of a show of force on immigration ahead of reelection campaign

President Trump visited a section of fencing at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego on Wednesday. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
President Trump visited a section of fencing at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego on Wednesday. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

SAN DIEGO — President Trump on Wednesday toured a border barrier here along the U.S.-Mexico divide while his top aides conducted a Coast Guard flyover of the double-layered, steel fencing — part of a show of force ahead of the 2020 election aimed reducing a massive spike in unauthorized immigration.

Trump’s visit to the Otay Mesa area of this border town near Tijuana comes as the administration has felt emboldened after winning new legal authority to move forward in funding a border wall and, at least temporarily, gaining additional powers to enforce restrictions on asylum that could help blunt a record surge of Central American families.

Capping a three-day road trip that included a campaign rally in New Mexico and several campaign fundraisers in California, Trump touted his team’s progress in completing a 24-mile section of replacement barrier here.

“People are hearing about the wall and they’re not coming up nearly as much,” Trump told reporters while standing near the 30-foot steel bollard fencing, which he called the “Rolls-Royce” of border walls.

“People see this — it’s one of the reasons I’m doing this — and they think, ‘There’s no reason to make that long journey up because we’re not getting into the United States,’ ” Trump added.

As the president ramps up his reelection bid, his reliance on hard-line immigration tactics represents an uncertain bet that deterrence will persuade migrants to stay away. Past trends, however, suggest that ebbs in migration patterns will be difficult to sustain in the face of ongoing violence and poverty in Central America.

Though the number of arrests at the southern border has plunged nearly 60 percent since a 12-year high in the spring, experts said the progress has been built on potentially unreliable tools that could prove temporary — including increased cooperation from the governments in Mexico and Guatemala and court rulings.

“The administration is reaching for every lever they can . . . and some of those are having significant gains,” said David Inserra, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “But the reality is that the measures Trump is entertaining are mostly executive agreements and [court] decisions on regulations. All of them can be undone or undermined by new court hearings or decisions elsewhere.”

Trump and his advisers view the immigration efforts as a political winner, and the president touted his policies during a campaign rally in Rio Rancho, N.M., in a heavily Latino state that leans Democratic. Polls show broad disapproval from Democrats over Trump’s handling of immigration, while large majorities of Republican voters support his approach.

As the presidential entourage arrived here, Trump posted an image on Twitter with his face superimposed in front of a bollard wall and the message, in Spanish, “No Más,” meaning “no more.”

Trump’s critics have faulted him for trampling over long-standing U.S. asylum policies aimed at offering relief to vulnerable migrants fleeing persecution in their homelands.

The administration has forced at least 42,000 migrants, most of them from Central America, to remain in makeshift conditions in Mexican border towns as their asylum cases are litigated under a program called the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP. And a ruling last week from the Supreme Court permits federal officials to enforce new regulations to deny asylum to those migrants as a legal fight over the rules plays out in court.

Immigrant rights advocates have accused Trump of employing draconian tactics to respond to a problem of his own making. The number of migrants taken into U.S. custody at the southern border peaked in May at more than 144,000 — the highest monthly total in a dozen years. Experts cited a rush to cross the border as Trump unsuccessfully pursued other hard-line measures, such as a policy that resulted in the separation of thousands of migrant children from their families.

Though migration numbers traditionally dip in the hot summer months, federal officials have credited the significant decline in border crossings since May to the MPP program, as well as a crackdown from the Mexican government, which under threats of new tariffs from Trump dispatched thousands of National Guard troops to its northern and southern borders.

“They’re certainly showing us that they are doing all they can to take credit and message that the actions they’ve been taking are bearing fruit,” said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute who served as at top immigration official in the Clinton administration.

“Is it a durable solution? That’s another issue,” Meissner added. “Everything we know about migration and the way migration works is that when you have strong push forces and when you have strong pull forces, things may be interrupted for a while, but then there’s adaptation” from migrants and smuggling networks.

Trump aides defended their tactics as a justifiable emergency reaction to the humanitarian crisis in the spring.

Administration officials have faulted Congress for failing to pass a comprehensive immigration policy overhaul and pointed to the fast-growing number of asylum applications in recent years as evidence that Central American families are abusing lax U.S. policies. Most migrants who apply for asylum are released into the country while awaiting their court hearings, which can take months because of lengthy backlogs.

In addition to the new asylum restrictions, the Trump administration has reached an agreement with Guatemala that could compel migrants from El Salvador and Honduras who are seeking entrance to the United States to apply instead for asylum in that country.

The cumulative effect of their efforts, officials said, is to construct an obstacle course of physical, legal and bureaucratic hurdles that will drive down unauthorized immigration.

Trump administration officials have said they expect to complete more than 450 miles of replacement and new border barriers by the end of 2020, but only a small fraction of that has been completed to date. The president also has failed to deliver on promises to get Mexico to pay the billions of dollars it is expected to cost, instead using emergency powers to tap into money that was allocated to Pentagon projects.

The Pentagon has compiled a list of projects overseas that will be eliminated due to the shift of dollars, and military officials have warned privately that the moves could put personnel at risk.

The Interior Department announced Wednesday it was transferring administrative jurisdiction of approximately 560 acres of federal land to the Army to build roughly 70 miles of border barriers.

On Tuesday, acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan and several of his senior aides visited a makeshift courthouse in the border town of Laredo, Tex., established under the MPP program to expedite asylum hearings, the first of five planned facilities that could cost up to $155 million. And on Wednesday, the group conducted an aerial tour of the border fence here.

“There’s a false narrative out there that this is the president’s vanity wall,” said Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. “That’s false. He reached out to experts and agents on the front lines.”

Immigration experts warned that Trump is at risk of prematurely declaring victory.

In July, the Trump administration cut millions of dollars in aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where most of the migrant families are coming from, a move experts said could depress efforts in those countries to improve economic and security conditions.

Furthermore, Trump’s threats of tariffs to force Mexico to crack down on migrants have engendered widespread political opposition in that country, said Alan Bersin, who served as CBP commissioner in the Obama administration. He added that Mexico’s deteriorating economy could propel more migrants from that country to try to cross the border, even if the number of Central Americans continues to drop.

But Trump was enthusiastic during his tour. When a construction worker suggested the president join the team in signing their names on the steel bollard fencing, the president didn’t hesitate.

“I’ll sign it,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Nakamura reported from Washington.