US President Donald Trump on Friday threatened to close the US southern border or large sections of it next week if Mexico does not halt undocumented immigrants from reaching the border “immediately”.
“It could mean all trade” with Mexico, Trump said when questioned by reporters in Florida. “We will close it for a long time. I am not kidding around”.
Trump has previously threatened to close the border – including at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Thursday night – but this time was different as he gave a timetable.
In December, Trump threatened to seal the US-Mexico border “entirely” if Congress did not approve billions of dollars in funding for a wall. Instead, he allowed the government to shut down for a record 35 days.
If he follows through on Friday’s threat, it would likely anger Mexican leaders and business owners and groups on both sides of the border.
The White House did not immediately respond to questions from the Associated Press about whether Trump’s possible action would apply to commercial and air travel, but a substantial closure could have an especially heavy impact on cross-border communities from San Diego to South Texas, as well as supermarkets, factories, and other businesses across the country that rely on trade from Mexico.
“If Mexico doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States through our Southern Border, I will be CLOSING the Border, or large sections of the Border, next week,” Trump said in a tweet. “This would be so easy for Mexico to do, but they just take our money and ‘talk.'”
In response, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Twitter on Friday that Mexico does not act on the basis of threats.
“Mexico does not act on the basis of threats. We are a great neighbor,” Ebrard tweeted. “[Ask] the million and a half Americans who chose our country as their home, the largest community of [Americans] outside the US. For them we are also the best neighbor they could have.”
Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America said he did not take Trump’s threat very seriously.
“I can think of nobody in the US government, including White House staff, who would go along with closing all ports of entry, which would cost US businesses billions of dollars,” he told Al Jazeera.
‘We can do everything we can’
Trump’s declaration came a day after Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said his country was doing its part to fight migrant smuggling.
Criminal networks charge thousands of dollars a person to move migrants through Mexico, increasingly towards remote sections of the US-Mexico border in large groups.
“We are going to do everything we can to help,” Lopez Obrador said. “We don’t in any way want a confrontation with the US government.”
A senior Homeland Security (DHS) official on Friday suggested Trump was referring to the ongoing surge of mostly Central American families crossing the border from Mexico. Many people who cross the border between official ports of entry ultimately request asylum under US law, which does not require asylum seekers to enter at an official crossing.
The official said the US might close designated ports of entry to re-deploy staff to help process parents and children.
Ports of entry are official crossing points that are used by residents and commercial vehicles. The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, did not specify which ports the administration was considering closing, but said only that closures were “on the table”.
Growing number of migrants
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner Kevin McAleenan said on Wednesday that 750 border inspectors would be reassigned to deal with the growing number of migrant families, and the DHS official said on Friday that the department was seeking volunteers from other agencies to help.
Rights groups and many Democrats have criticised Trump’s characterisation of the border as a “crisis”. Earlier this week, the Democratic-controlled House failed to get enough votes to override Trump’s veto of a bill that revoked the president’s national emergency on the border. Trump is using that order, which is also being challenged in the courts, to circumvent Congress to obtain the needed funds for his border wall. The president called on Congress to immediately change what he said were weak US immigration laws, which he blamed on Democrats.
The DHS wants the authority to detain families for longer and more quickly deport children from Central America who arrive at the border on their own.
The department argues those policy changes would stop families from trying to enter the US.
March is on track for the highest number of monthly border crossings in over a decade, with more than 100,000 apprehensions and encounters of people deemed inadmissible at US ports of entry, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said.
CBP is also directly releasing migrants into the US when US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is unable to provide bed space to relieve overcrowding, McAleenan added.
*With additional reporting from Ola Salem in Washington, DC