Trump Renews Threat to Close Border, Cuts Aid to Central America

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump repeated his threat to close the southern border, saying that U.S. “detention areas are maxed out & we will take no more illegals” at a time the State Department has moved to cut aid to Central America at Trump’s direction.

On Twitter Saturday, the president continued to demand that Mexico “immediately” stop allowing illegal migration into the U.S., which his Homeland Security secretary has said portends a “meltdown” at her agency.

Mexico must use its own “strong immigration laws” to stop the flow of thousands of people trying to reach the U.S., Trump said.

Asked on ABC on Sunday what it would take for Trump not to follow through on his threat to close the border, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said “something dramatic.” He blamed Democrats for being unwilling to admit there’s a crisis.

“It’s clear the Democrats are not going to help us, so it shouldn’t surprise anybody that we’re turning to what some folks might think extreme measures,’’ Mulvaney said on “This Week.” Trump senior counselor Kellyanne Conway said on “Fox News Sunday” that Trump’s threat to close the border is “not a threat.”

Conway also echoed a comment tweeted by Trump on Saturday that U.S. immigration laws could be fixed “in less than one hour.”

On Friday, Trump told reporters that there’s a “good likelihood” he’d close the border next week, adding that he plans to hold a news conference soon at a section of the border where the government is building a wall.

Northern Triangle

Trump also said on Friday that he would end foreign aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the so-called “Northern Triangle.”

That process is now under way, according to the State Department: at the instruction of Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, State is ending foreign assistance programs for the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years to the Northern Triangle. Congress will be engaged as part of the process, a State Department spokesperson said.

Democrats, including Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Representative Nita Lowey of New York, criticized the move.

“From combating drug trafficking and transnational criminal groups to helping establish safe communities with economic opportunities, U.S. foreign assistance addresses the factors driving migration from Central America,” Menendez said in a statement Saturday.

Durbin said on “Meet the Press” Sunday that the focus should be on helping the people of Central America who are desperate to come to the U.S. and “the president’s cutting off aid to these countries will not solve that problem.”

In a pair of tweets on Saturday, Lowey said the “move to cut off humanitarian aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is immoral and more likely to deteriorate conditions that push people into the kind of poverty and despair that exacerbates migration.”

Critics say that withdrawing assistance payments would only increase the type of desperation about crime, drugs and poverty that’s driven thousands to attempt to leave Central America.

But Conway said stopping aid would have little impact. “The conditions are already awful,” she said. “We are over the melting point.”

Trump has periodically threatened to close the border, where he’s declared a national emergency because of the number of migrants crossing illegally. Sealing the border entirely would halt millions of dollars a day in cross-border commerce.

‘All Trade’

Trade with Mexico totaled $616 billion in 2017, according to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. “It could mean all trade,” with Mexico, Trump said. “We will close it for a long time.”

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told reporters on Friday that “we are going to help, we want to have a good relationship with the United States government. We are not going to enter in controversy.”

He said that some of Trump’s complaints are related to politics and “the electoral process.” The country’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, was less conciliatory.

“Mexico does not act on the basis of threats,” Ebrard tweeted. “We’re a great neighbor. Just ask the million and a half Americans who chose our country as home.”

‘Not Playing Games’

Trump told reporters that Latin American countries including Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador have done nothing to help the U.S. halt illegal immigration.

“We’ll keep it closed for a long time,” Trump said of the border. “I’m not playing games.”

He also criticized Colombian President Ivan Duque Marquez, saying the flow of drugs to the U.S. has increased since his election.

Read more: Trump Attacks Ally Colombia Over Drug War Failure

Apprehensions of undocumented immigrants spiked in February to more than 76,000, an increase of more than 39,000 compared to a year earlier, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. More than half were families or unaccompanied children, the agency reported.

Trump Renews Threat to Close Border, Cuts Aid to Central America

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a letter to Congress sent Thursday that apprehensions will near 100,000 in March, and that her agency faces a “system-wide meltdown.” There are 4,700 migrant children in detention facilities run by Customs and Border Patrol, she wrote, calling the figure “a symptom of a broken system.”

“DHS facilities are overflowing, agents and officers are stretched too thin, and the magnitude of arriving and detained aliens has increased the risk of life-threatening incidents,” she wrote. She asked Congress for more money to build detention facilities for the migrants, and also wants the authority to rapidly deport children from Central America “if they have no legal right to stay.”

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters Friday that DHS is moving border agents from U.S. ports of entry on the border to patrol areas between them, where most illegal border crossings happen. The official said no preparations are yet being made to close the border, but that if the flow of migrants continues to increase, the U.S. might “degrade” operations at ports.

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