By Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton
President Donald Trump took a step back on Tuesday from a threat to close the southwestern border to fight illegal immigration, crediting Mexican officials with taking big steps in recent days to apprehend more U.S.-bound migrants crossing their country.
After pressure from U.S. and foreign companies worried that a border shutdown would cause chaos to supply chains, Trump underlined efforts by Mexico at its own southern border to hinder illegal immigration from Central America.
Trump threatened on Friday to close the border this week unless Mexico took steps. He repeated that threat on Tuesday but said he had not made a decision yet: “We’re going to see what happens over the next few days.”
Closing the border could disrupt millions of legal crossings and billions of dollars in trade. Automaker companies have been warning the White House privately in recent days that closing the border would lead to the idling of U.S. auto plants within days because they rely on prompt deliveries of components made in Mexico.
Trump praised Mexico on Tuesday for stepping up efforts to stop the flow of migrants crossing their territory.
“Mexico, as you know, as of yesterday has been starting to apprehend a lot of people at their southern border coming in from Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador and they’re really apprehending thousands of people. And it’s the first time really in decades that this is taking place and it should have taken place a long time ago,” Trump told reporters.
“They say they’re going to stop them. Let’s see. They have the power to stop them, they have the laws to stop them,” Trump said.
Trump has made fighting illegal immigration from Mexico a key part of his agenda but shutting down one of the world’s most used borders might be a step too far even for many of his fellow Republicans.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said closing the border could have devastating economic consequences, and joined his Democratic colleagues in warning Trump against such a move.
“Closing down the border would have potentially catastrophic economic impact on our country and I would hope we would not be doing that sort of thing,” McConnell told reporters at the Capitol building.
A group representing General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV said in a statement that “any action that stops commerce at the border would be harmful to the U.S. economy, and in particular, the auto industry.”
The Mexican Embassy reached out to automakers over the weekend to sound the alarm, automakers said on the condition they not be named. In total, dozens of U.S. vehicle, engine, transmission and other auto parts plants could close because of a lack of component parts in the coming days and weeks after a border shutdown. It would also prevent thousands of vehicles built in Mexico from landing in U.S. dealer showrooms.
Automakers exported nearly 2.6 million Mexican-made vehicles to the United States, in 2018, accounting for 15 percent of all vehicles sold in the United States. Some vehicles like the Chevrolet Blazer SUV are only made in Mexico.
Senior U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials said on Tuesday a recent redeployment of some 750 officers on the border to deal with a surge in migrants – mostly Central American families turning themselves into border agents – had already led to a slowing of legal crossings and commerce at ports of entry.
“Wait times in Brownsville (Texas) were around 180 minutes, which were two times the peaks of last year,” said a senior DHS official on a call with reporters. “We ended the day yesterday at Otay Mesa (California) with a back-up of 150 trucks that hadn’t been processed,” the official said.
DHS officials said border facilities have been overwhelmed by families who cannot be deported quickly because they hope to seek asylum in the United States.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimated that some 100,000 migrants would be apprehended or encountered at the border in March, the highest level in a decade. “The system is on fire,” a DHS official said.
Because of limits on how long children are legally allowed to be held in detention, many of the families are released to await their U.S. immigration court hearings, a process that can take years because of ballooning backlogs.
To try to address the problem, the administration in late January started returning some migrants to Mexico to wait our their U.S. court dates in Mexican border cities. On Monday, DHS said it would dramatically ramp up the pace of that program, even as it is being challenged in court and immigration attorneys have raised concerns about how the process is being implemented.