United States officials stressed yesterday that President Donald Trump’s threat to close the border with Mexico is serious even as experts warn that the move would inflict economic damage on the U.S. and do little to halt the flow of migrants.
Trump wrote on Twitter Friday that “if Mexico doesn’t immediately stop all immigration coming into the United States through our southern border, I will be closing the border, or large sections of the border, next week.”
The U.S president, who has long railed against the “invasion” of migrant caravans made up of mainly Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence, reiterated the threat on Saturday.
“Mexico must use its very strong immigration laws to stop the many thousands of people trying to get into the USA. Our detention areas are maxed out & we will take no more illegals. Next step is to close the border! This will also help us with stopping the drug flow from Mexico!” Trump wrote.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told ABC News that it would take “something dramatic” to stop Trump from following through on his border-closure threat.
Mulvaney said that an absence of support from the Democratic Party on the border security measures Trump wants to enforce has left the president with few other options.
“Faced with those limitations, the president will do everything he can,” he said. “If closing the ports of entry means that, that’s exactly what he intends to do. We need border security and we’re going to do the best we can with what we have.”
Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway told Fox News that the situation at the border is at a “melting point” and that Trump’s threat “certainly isn’t a bluff.”
If Trump does follow through, trade specialists and business executives warn, there will be severe economic consequences given that Mexico is the United States’ third largest trading partner. There was more than US $611 billion in cross-border trade last year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Supply chains for large U.S. auto makers would be disrupted, prices at supermarkets would quickly go up and some products would soon disappear from shelves altogether, experts say.
“First, you’d see prices rise incredibly fast. Then . . . we would see layoffs within a day or two,” said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in Nogales, Arizona. “This is not going to help border security.”
Monica Ganley, principal at Quarterra, a consultancy specializing in Latin American agricultural issues and trade, offered a similar assessment.
“When a border is closed or barriers to trade are put in place, I absolutely expect there would be an impact on consumers. We’re absolutely going to see higher prices. This is a very real and very relevant concern for American consumers,” she said.
Steve Barnard, president and CEO of Mission Produce, the world’s largest distributor and grower of avocados, said that if exports from Mexico to the United States were stopped, Americans would run out of the fruit in three weeks.
“You couldn’t pick a worse time of year because Mexico supplies virtually 100% of the avocados in the U.S. right now. California is just starting and they have a very small crop, but they’re not relevant right now and won’t be for another month or so,” he said.
As nearly half of all vegetables exported to the United States and 40% of fruit is grown in Mexico, it’s likely that avocados wouldn’t be the only fresh produce missing from U.S. supermarket shelves.
Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States, said yesterday that closing the border would be a “self-inflicted wound” for the United States economy.
“I’m not going to try to second-guess whether the president is playing chicken, bluffing or spewing whatever comes to his mind,” he said. “The reality is that it would be extremely costly for the United States in terms of trade and economic well-being.”
The effect would be equally harsh on Mexican border communities, predicted the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. Armando Cabada said a border closure would be “extremely serious . . . putting the brakes on the border region’s economy, which is based on manufacturing.”
The daily lives of Juárez residents would also be disrupted, the mayor warned, citing the “thousands and thousands” of students who study in El Paso, Texas, every day, and the thousands of people who cross the border legally to work in the U.S.
Gerry Schwebel, executive vice-president of the international division of IBC Bank in Laredo, Texas, said “if you want to create an economic crisis, then shutting down the border will create an economic crisis.”
Rufus Yerxa, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, opined: “It’s unworkable and unrealistic, and I don’t think he [Trump] could really do it. There would certainly be legal challenges from lots and lots of companies.”
Stephen Legomsky, professor emeritus at the Washington University School of Law and former chief counsel of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, also said closing the border would likely end up in court because the move would violate federal immigration laws.
He added that a border closure would actually encourage migrants to attempt to enter the United States illegally rather than at official ports of entry, pointing out that under federal law they have the right to ask for asylum once on U.S. soil.
“If anything, closing the authorized points would just drive more traffic between the ports of entry where people can enter illegally,” Legomsky said.
Robert Perez, deputy commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told CNN on Friday that the closure of ports of entry would have “severe” consequences.
“It’s Customs and Border Protection at every port of entry. Nearly 400 million travelers a year . . . nearly 30 million trucks, rail cars and cargo containers every year. And so, there will be a severe impact . . .” he said.
Despite Trump’s threat of a closure occurring as soon as this week and his assertion that “I’m not playing games,” the likelihood of it happening would appear low as no formal instructions have been issued, according to a Customs and Border Protection official and a Pentagon spokesman.
The official told The Washington Post that implementing an order to shut the border would require time to notify Congress and unions that represent border and customs agents.
In Mexico – where a border closure would also have severe economic consequences – the government has largely tried to avoid aggravating the situation, although Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard asserted that “Mexico does not act on the basis of threats.”
President López Obrador, however, has refused to bite back at Trump’s threats, an approach that was labeled “submissive, timid and cowardly” by one prominent political figure.
Referring to Trump’s directive for Mexico to do more to stem immigration, the president said Friday: “We are going to help, to collaborate. We want to have a good relationship with the government of the United States. We are not going to argue about these issues.”