WASHINGTON ― Three years after promising that he was the only candidate who could stop illegal immigration, President Donald Trump is instead overseeing a record surge of border crossings ― and critics say he has only himself to blame.
“It’s not going well for him, and it hasn’t been going well for a long time,” said Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida who came to this country as a refugee from Cuba. “Things have gotten worse. And it’s on the back of the president.”
Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said Trump’s “policies and rhetoric” both are driving Central Americans who have considered coming to the United States to do so sooner rather than later.
“They’re really creating an urgency among migrants to appear at the border as quickly as possible before the next hammer comes down,” she said.
Trump centered much of his presidential campaign on his promises to curb illegal immigration and to make Mexico pay for a border wall. “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall,” he said the day he began his campaign in June 2015. Just days before the November 2016 election, he pledged at a Miami rally: “A Trump administration will stop illegal immigration.”
Yet last month, more than two years into his term, illegal border crossings jumped to more than 92,000 ― the highest number for March since 2007, when George W. Bush was president. (Nearly 11,000 additional unauthorized migrants were allowed into the country to make humanitarian claims like asylum.) Illegal immigration, which fell during Trump’s first months in office, has been rising again.
One former senior Trump White House official said on condition of anonymity that failing to get a handle on illegal border crossings would be a “big time” problem come next year’s reelection campaign, given how many times Trump has pounded both his Republican and Democratic opponents on the issue.
“I think he has to make steps to fix the problem, not just fire folks,” said a top Republican adviser close to the White House, also on the condition of anonymity, about the recent departure of several top officials at the Department of Homeland Security, including Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
For their part, Trump and his White House do seem to understand the danger to his reelection chances next year. The president has taken a series of dramatic steps to get funding for his border wall, from forcing a government shutdown in December to declaring a “national emergency” in February to raid Defense Department money to, most recently, threatening to shut down the entire Mexican border ― and in so doing, putting at risk the entire U.S. economy.
This week, the White House staged a briefing for reporters that blamed the surging numbers on a “recalcitrant bureaucracy” made up largely of government employees who are trying to sabotage, rather than advance, Trump’s immigration policies, as well as on Congress and the courts.
“It would have been possible to prevent this crisis more easily from escalating,” said a senior administration official at the briefing, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is a court and congressionally created crisis.”
Trump’s reelection campaign is putting the blame squarely on Democrats. “Democrats sit firmly in crisis denial mode,” said Erin Perrine, the team’s deputy communications director. “Democrats have opposed border security at every turn and even tried to block the president’s declaration of a national emergency at the border.”
Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports restrictions on immigration, agreed with the idea that Congress should have done more.
“Congress definitely could have acted early and averted the situation,” he said, listing what he called “loopholes” that encourage migrants to claim asylum and thereby usually guarantee themselves at least a few years in this country before facing an immigration judge. “Democrats in the Senate made pretty clear that they wouldn’t even consider plugging the loopholes. They made it clear they didn’t even think they were loopholes.”
Krikorian, though, acknowledged that Trump himself could have done more earlier in his administration, when Republicans still controlled the House, but he failed to make it a top priority then. “In retrospect, they prioritized something that maybe wasn’t as important,” Krikorian said, referring to the White House’s focus on a travel ban to deliver on Trump’s campaign promise to bar Muslims from entering the country.
He said he disagrees with the idea that Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has made the problem worse. “That’s a Democrat talking point. They’re trying to shift blame,” he said.
Blame shifting is exactly what Trump is trying to do, said Rick Tyler, a political consultant who worked for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in his 2016 presidential primary campaign.
“It’s not his fault. Because it’s never his fault,” Tyler said. “He has mastered, unbelievably, presidential billionaire victim status.”
Tyler added that Trump’s recent comment about the U.S. being “full” and unable to take any more immigrants was particularly revealing, in that it appears to apply only to those people trying to cross the Mexican border. “He seems to be saying we don’t have any room for brown immigrants here,” Tyler said.
That tone is exactly what Trump’s hard-core base of anti-immigration nativists want to hear, Tyler added, and so he doubts that the surge of undocumented immigrants will wind up hurting the president much.
But it’s also exactly that tone that is helping to worsen the problem, Cardenas said, along with Trump’s threats to close the southern border entirely and to end foreign aid to the Central American countries that many of the migrants are trying to flee. What Trump should do is increase foreign aid to decrease violent crime in those countries and even open more consulates there to let people apply for asylum without traveling through Mexico and gathering at the U.S. border, said Cardenas.
“He’s making the wrong decision each and every time,” Cardenas said of the president.
There are logical solutions, Pierce said, that would help weed out those not facing a “credible fear” for their safety while fast-tracking those with legitimate asylum claims, but the Trump administration is not making such options a top priority. He and his advisers seem more interested in simply deterring all migrants, she added.
“They’re approaching it from the mindset that there are no legitimate asylum-seekers,” Pierce said.
Language was updated with more specifics about the undocumented immigrants who crossed the southern border in March.