If President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration at the U.S. border with Mexico weren’t self-defeating and inhumane enough, here comes the latest twist — a threat to close legal points of entry this week. That possibility, first raised Friday by the president on Twitter, is not unlike a petulant child with a firecracker in one hand and a match in the other. If nature takes its course, one should only expect the worst no matter the instigator’s intent.
In this case, it could mean a major economic upheaval that could devastate farmers, automakers and many other U.S.-based businesses that rely on daily trade with Mexico, the nation’s third largest trading partner, and raise consumer prices. Meanwhile, it would only drive those seeking to enter the U.S. to more remote locations between entry points — exploiting the very liability Mr. Trump has been railing about in his crusade to build a wall. That makes the policy both self-destructive and self-defeating, an idiocy two-fer.
While the approach will no doubt win cheers from the president’s most nationalistic and xenophobic supporters who just seem to crave dramatic action, it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s actually happening at the border. The recent uptick in border crossings is driven primarily by families from Central American countries such as Guatemala and Honduras fleeing gang violence and the ruin left behind by prolonged civil wars and dysfunctional governments. Such refugees have a legal right to seek asylum, but currently, U.S. facilities to deal with those families, particularly those with young children, are overwhelmed.
What would a rational U.S. response to what is essentially a humanitarian crisis look like? It would surely mean dramatically increasing housing and processing facilities at the border and hiring more judges to oversee asylum claims. The government would invest in alternatives to detention, discourage human smuggling (essentially by offering refugees a way for their claims to be heard expeditiously) and increase humanitarian aid to Central America. Incredibly, President Trump has actually ordered a suspension of such aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — apparently under the logic that those countries will clean up their acts and prevent people from leaving the country in droves, violence or no.
As satisfying as it may be to stomp one’s feet and deny aid to countries that are struggling in most every sense of the word, it defies common sense to expect that making desperate countries more desperate will somehow stem the flow of refugees and not increase it. If President Trump were serious about reducing asylum seekers, he’d be doubling such aid, not cutting it. And bullying those countries is only going to cause them to gravitate toward the usual police state tactics, increasing the number of armed confrontations that also drive away families.
But those policies don't make much of a rallying cry to those in the far-right echo chamber where fear and hatred of Latin Americans so often reverberates. Compassion, resettlement, immigration reform, foreign aid — those ideas don’t rally the angry, the fearful and the disenfranchised in Mr. Trump’s political base like the prospect of murders and rapists entering the country illegally. Never mind that the real life and death struggle is being faced by those families seeking a better life, not by Americans who should be looking for ways to help them rather than worsen their circumstances.
Closing the borders is just the ultimate expression of the Trump administration’s irrational border policy that chooses the wrong strategies to address the wrong problems. That it seriously threatens the U.S. economy barely seemed to register with top aides who made the Sunday talk show circuit, mostly using border closing as a talking point to circle back to the necessity of building a wall. It’s not even clear what Mexico or any other country would have to do in order to lift the threat of a closing — or if there’s an actual plan to implement one. That raises the strong possibility that this is just a bunch of hot air and chest-thumping, but with President Trump, you never know when he’s ready to cut off his nose to spite his face. You have to be prepared for either possibility, at least until Congress rediscovers the kind of rational policies it debated 14 years ago when the last Republican president nearly pulled off comprehensive immigration reform.