President Donald Trump took a significant step toward carrying out his signature – and most controversial – campaign promise Wednesday, ordering the construction of a wall along the southwest border.
In a pair of executive orders, Trump also ordered an increase in enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, a clamp down on so-called sanctuary cities, a boost in the number of Border Patrol officers, and expansion of detention centers for those caught trying to sneak across the border.
The president signed the orders during a visit to the Department of Homeland Security Wednesday where he promised the measures would save thousands of lives, millions of jobs and billions of dollars. He said it would improve security for both Mexico and the United States.
“We’re in the middle of a crisis on our southern border,” he said. “The unprecedented surge of illegal migrants from Central America is harming both Mexico and the United States. And I believe the steps we will take starting right now will improve the safety in both of our countries. It’s going to be very very good for Mexico. A nation without borders is not a nation. Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control back of its borders.”
A surge of Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty has overwhelmed the U.S. immigration system. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended 408,870 people along the southwest border last year. Among them, were 117,300 unaccompanied children and families from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Just 15,402 Mexican children and families attempted the illegal crossing.
The immigration directives appear to be the most ambitious of a series of executive orders that the real estate mogul has signed since taking office Friday. The first directive, in addition, to ordering funds for the planning designing and construction of wall, also authorized the hiring of 5,000 more U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and tripling the number of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to intercept, track down and deport immigrants in the United States illegally.
That second, which Kansas secretary of state and immigration hardliner Kris Kobach helped write, directs the Department of Homeland Security Security and the attorney general to withhold federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes, from states and cities where local officials limit their cooperation with federal authorities on immigrants in detention. It also creates an office within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide services to victims of crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally.
Immigrant rights groups said they’re already lining up a list of lawyers willing to work free of charge to fight the expected removal orders and help refugees unite with families still overseas.
Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice Education Fund, charged Trump with essentially “taking a wrecking ball to the Statue of Liberty.”
Several of Trump’s promises on immigration can’t be fulfilled without congressional help, including paying for the wall and ending federal funding to sanctuary cities. He has the support of Republican leaders in the House and Senate, but he will face opposition from Democrats and some more moderate members of his party.
Critics immediately denounced the measures.
“Local police have implemented policies on how to deal with the fact that they have large populations of immigrants who live and work in their communities but who are afraid to come forward,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrats. “I don’t think Donald Trump knows more about policing in America’s cities then actual chiefs of police, but apparently Trump thinks he does.”
Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, questioned who would fruits and vegetables for American dinner tables. The majority of U.S. farm workers are in the country illegally, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“Who is going to feed the guests at Trump hotels and golf courses? Who is going to feed Donald Trump?” Rodriguez said.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the administration will move first against immigrants “who have violated our laws.”
Spicer also indicated that immigrants brought into the country illegally as children would not be a priority for enforcement. But others worried that while Trump’s policies may not target the recipients of the program, they might still be caught up in enforcement. c, including those brought into the country as children, could be affected by the order.
“What we know is that Donald Trump’s strategy is to take the word criminal and expand it as much as is humanly possible,” said Greisa Martinez, advocacy director of United We Dream.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services continues to take applications for the so-called DACA program, which defers action for those who entered the country as children, but the executive order didn’t outline any safeguards for DACA recipients.
In Mexico, there was no official comment from the government. But there was lots of criticism of President Enrique Peña Nieto who’s scheduled to meet Trump in Washington Tuesday. Critics said Peña Nieto should cancel the meeting.
“They will greet you with a door slammed in your face,” former leftist presidential candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas warned Peña Nieto in a statement.
But the Mexican peso gained value against the dollar, indicating optimism that cross-border frictions may lessen since Trump declared that “a strong and healthy economy in Mexico is very good for the United States.”
Trump said the measures would enhance the U.S. relationship with Mexico. Unlike previous American leaders, Trump appeared to take responsibility for the rash of high-powered weapons that are smuggled from the United States into Mexico, where gun sales are strictly limited.
Building a wall will also help Mexico because it’ll deter Central Americans from coming into Mexico on their way to the United States, he said.
“We’re going to save lives on both sides of the border and we also understand that a strong and healthy economy in Mexico is very good for the United States.”
National correspondents Hannah Allam, Anna Douglas and Tim Johnson contributed.