By ZEKE MILLER and JONATHAN LEMIRE Associated Press
CALEXICO, Calif. (AP) — Eager to make border security a central campaign issue, President Donald Trump consulted with immigration agents in a California border city Friday while insisting that the nation’s immigration system was overburdened and declaring that “our country is full.”
The political battle over the border ignited again just as Air Force One touched down in Calexico, not far from Mexico, as California and 19 other states that are suing Trump over his declaration requested a court order to stop money from being diverted to fund the project. But Trump, who has placed hard-line immigration policy at the heart of his administration, declared that his move, which included vetoing a congressional vote and some opposition from his own party, was necessary.
“There is indeed an emergency on our southern border,” Trump said at a border security briefing, adding that there has been a sharp uptick in illegal crossings. “It’s a colossal surge, and it’s overwhelming our immigration system. We can’t take you anymore. Our country is full.”
Although the wall — his signature campaign promise — remains unbuilt, Trump declared that at least 400 miles of the border barrier would be erected over the next two years even as he tried to blame Democrats for a lack of progress on the wall.
“The crisis is a direct result of the obstruction by Democrats,” the president claimed.
Trump also denied that he changed his mind about shutting down the border with Mexico, a threat he backed off on Thursday. Trump said he reversed course because he saw Mexico get tougher in stopping an influx of immigrants from moving north.
“Mexico has been absolutely terrific for the last four days,” the president said as he left the White House. “I never changed my mind at all. I may shut it down at some point.”
Though Trump, who has pulled a series of about-faces in recent days, walked away from his threat to close the border, he went ahead and highlighted the conditions at the boundary with Mexico. The fence that Trump is touring is a 2-mile section that was a long-planned replacement for an older barrier, rather than new wall. The White House says the barrier is marked with a plaque bearing Trump’s name and those of top homeland security officials.
The president’s visit came a day after he withdrew his nominee to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Longtime border official Ron Vitiello appeared to be cruising toward confirmation, but Trump said Friday that he wanted to go in a “tougher direction.”
Trump, who wants to return to illegal immigration as a key 2020 re-election issue, also took to Twitter earlier Friday to claim that he could revive his threat to shut the border, a move that fellow Republicans warned would have a devastating economic impact.
“If for any reason Mexico stops apprehending and bringing the illegals back to where they came from, the U.S. will be forced to Tariff at 25% all cars made in Mexico and shipped over the Border to us. If that doesn’t work, which it will, I will close the Border,” Trump tweeted, before invoking the new but not-yet-approved trade policy. “This will supersede USMCA.”
As Trump landed in California, the state’s governor ripped the president’s push for Congress to pass legislation that would tighten asylum rules to make it harder for people to qualify.
“Since our founding, this country has been a place of refuge — a safe haven for people fleeing tyranny, oppression and violence. His words show a total disregard of the Constitution, our justice system, and what it means to be an American,” said Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
And the state’s attorney general, Democrat Xavier Becerra, said Friday that 20 states took action to prevent $1.6 billion from being siphoned away from fighting drug trafficking and funding military construction projects.
Trump, who was presented with a piece of the future border wall, traveled to the border with a number of congressional Republicans, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, who was indicted last year on a litany of campaign finance violations and has since been stripped of committee assignments. Hunter still won re-election.
Trump has been increasingly exasperated at his inability to halt the swelling number of migrants entering the U.S., including thousands who have been released after arriving because border officials have no space for them. Arrests along the southern border have skyrocketed in recent months, and border agents were on track to make 100,000 arrests or denials of entry in March, a 12-year high. More than half of those are families with children, who require extra care.
The southern border is nearly 2,000 miles long and already has about 650 miles of different types of barriers, including short vehicle barricades and tall steel fences that go up to 30 feet high. Most of the fencing was built during the administration of George W. Bush, and there have been updates and maintenance throughout other administrations.
Trump has yet to complete any new mileage of fencing or other barriers anywhere on the border. His administration has only replaced existing fencing, including the section he is touring Friday. Construction for that small chunk of fencing cost about $18 million, began in February 2018 and was completed in October. Plans to replace that fence date back to 2009, during President Barack Obama’s tenure.
Administration officials had been studying ways to minimize the economic impact of a potential border closure in case Trump went through with his threat, including keeping trucking lanes open or closing only certain ports.
But even absent that extraordinary step, delays at border stations have been mounting after some 2,000 border officers were reassigned from checking vehicles to deal with migrant crowds.
Trump walked away from his border closure threat just days after he also abruptly postponed Republican efforts to work on a replacement for Obama’s health care law, commonly called “Obamacare.”
After the border visit, Trump was slated to travel to Los Angeles, where he was set to hold a pair of fundraisers in the deeply liberal city. He was then poised to travel to Las Vegas for another re-election fundraiser and an address to the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is backed by GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report from Washington.