President Trump, having successfully squeezed several news cycles out of a will-he-or-won’t-he reality show drama over his threats to “close the border” between the United States and Mexico, has apparently decided he prefers threatening to close the border over actually moving to do it.
On Thursday, Trump announced that he wouldn’t close the border imminently, but said it was on the table if Mexico didn’t “stop, or largely stop,” drugs and unauthorized immigrants from coming into the US.
The announcement matters for US businesses (and people) who were worried about an imminent shutdown. But it doesn’t actually change the fact that on the ground, there already is a slowdown at ports of entry — for the same reason that officials not named Trump were saying port closures might be needed to begin with.
And the past week has shown that using a border shutdown as a threat to get other people to do what Trump wants — especially when Trump isn’t exactly defining his goals in a realistic way — affects Americans whether or not there is ever an actual announcement that “the border” is closed.
There is already a border slowdown, and Trump’s declaration doesn’t change that
Trump’s threats of shutting down “the border” were always only a threat to shut down US ports of entry — official border crossings where people, cars, and trucks can come legally into the US. He can’t stop people from crossing into the US between ports of entry illegally, and he can’t stop such people from seeking asylum in the US once they’ve set foot on US soil. (The administration has already tried to ban people who enter the US illegally from seeking asylum, and got held up in court.)
And even at ports, what Trump talks about as an on/off switch — closing the border or not closing it — is really a dimmer: the possibility of reducing staff or shutting down lanes at individual ports of entry.
That switch is already dimmed.
DHS is already reassigning some staff from working at ports to supporting US Border Patrol officials in the care and processing of apprehended migrants. On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen ordered 750 port staff to be reassigned, and directed Customs and Border Protection (which oversees both ports and Border Patrol) to look into the possibility of shifting as many as 2,000 port officers.
For everyone in Trump’s administration other than Trump, that was the basis for talking about closing ports of entry entirely. While Trump talked about it as a bargaining chip, administration officials talked about it as a necessary act of logistics.
“Why are we talking about closing the border?” acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney asked (rhetorically) in a Sunday interview on ABC. “Not for spite and not to — not to try and — and undo what’s happening, but to simply say, look, we need the people from the ports of entry to go out and patrol in the desert.”
The reassignment of hundreds of officers has caused unusual slowdowns at various ports over the past few days. On Monday, the port crossing at Otay Mesa in California closed for the night with 150 trucks waiting to cross; on Wednesday, lines to cross into El Paso from Ciudad Juarez were so long that the local government of Juarez brought port-a-potties to relieve people waiting.
The ports along the border that are affected, and which functions are strained, vary from day to day. That makes sense given that the reason for the shutdown is reallocating staff hours. More importantly, it makes sense if the administration is trying to minimize the disruption to trade and legal border crossings.
Declaring flatly that the border is “closed” would do the exact opposite — it would have maximized the disruption.
That’s consistent with the way Trump talks about closing the border: as a threat to get everybody else to comply with what he wants.
Trump uses border closure as a bargaining chip
At first, Trump was attempting to pitch a border closure as an affirmatively good thing for the US, saying it would benefit the American economy because of the trade deficit (which is economically illiterate).
He later stopped doing that — acknowledging what have reportedly been repeated briefings from top White House economic staff explaining to him that it would be a very bad idea for American businesses as well as Mexican ones.
Instead, he’s now explicitly calling it a bargaining chip.
“If we don’t make a deal with Congress, or if Mexico — and probably you can say ‘and/or’” — if Mexico doesn’t do what they should be doing” by stopping people from coming, Trump said Tuesday, “then we’re going to close the border. That’s going to be it.”
In that respect, his announcement Thursday that he wouldn’t close the border was barely a reprieve. Because what Trump is demanding in return — that Mexico stop or “largely stop” drugs and migrants from entering the US — is at worst impossible, and at best impossible to define.
The Mexican government has generally cooperated with the Trump administration on migration (and has been stepping up its interdictions of migrants over the past week, days before Trump acknowledged that Mexico was “for the first time” stopping migrants), but it’s impossible to stop everyone from coming to the US. While Mexico’s administration initially granted large numbers of temporary visas to Central American migrants to travel legally through Mexico en route to the US when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in December, they stopped that policy after a month — and the number of families coming to the US has only spiked since then.
Trump is essentially asking that Mexico do something in a year that it’s been trying and failing to do for the past 15 years: eradicate human and drug smuggling in the country. And because he’s not clarifying what “largely stop” means, he’s raising the chance that Mexico could do everything possible and still not please him.
It’s hard to successfully use threats to get your way if you’re not clear about what exactly you want.
Uncertainty hurts people, too
Trump has done this before. His efforts to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program featured a six-month period for Congress to take legislative action to help the 700,000 young unauthorized immigrants DACA protected from deportation, before those expirations began to expire en masse. Those negotiations were already falling apart before a federal judge stepped in and stopped Trump from ending DACA (a court battle the Supreme Court is almost certain to take up next term).
Now, DACA is in a zombie state, in which unauthorized immigrants who had DACA protections before Trump tried to rescind them are allowed to keep renewing but are forced to continually consider how to maximize the time they’ll be protected if the Supreme Court sides with Trump.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants with Temporary Protected Status are in an even more dire position. They, too, are protected by a court ruling that stopped Trump from ending their legal status. But if a future court ruling goes against them, some could lose protections immediately if that’s what the administration chooses to do.
Just last week, Trump made the decision to extend a similar set of protections to hundreds of Somali immigrants just days before they were set to lose their status. And now he’s giving Mexico — and everyone who lives, works, or trades along the US-Mexico border — a similar “reprieve.”
The uncertainty itself matters. Mexican growers and the US businesses that import their produce will be forced, for the next year, to think about whether they should plan for a border closure in spring of 2020, or whether they should go on with business as usual and risk catastrophic losses if the border is closed. People who live in Mexico but work in the US will spend a year wondering if they’ll be able to get to work come next April — just like the DACA and TPS recipients who wonder if they’re going to be able to keep their jobs, or whether they’ll have to be fired once they lose their permission to work legally in the US.
Trump thinks of threats as leverage. But they’re only leverage because they cause pain.