Palm Beach, Fla. • Taking one drastic action against illegal immigration and threatening another, President Donald Trump moved to cut U.S. aid to three Central American nations whose citizens are fleeing north and declared he is likely to close America’s southern border next week unless Mexico halts the flow of migrants.
Though Trump has previously threatened to close the border and has not followed through, his administration moved to cut direct aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The State Department said in a statement that it will work with Congress to suspend 2017 and 2018 payments to the trio of nations, which have been home to some of the migrant caravans that have marched through Mexico to the U.S. border.
The president emphasized "I am not kidding around" about closing the border, even though such a severe move could hit the economies of both countries.
"It could mean all trade" with Mexico, Trump said when questioned on Friday by reporters in Florida. "We will close it for a long time."
Amplified by conservative media, Trump has made those caravans the symbol of what he says are the dangers of illegal immigration, making them a central theme of his midterm campaigning last fall. Now with the special counsel's Russia probe seemingly behind him, Trump has revived his warnings of their presence.
Trump has been promising for more than two years to build a long, impenetrable wall along the border to stop illegal immigration, though Congress has been reluctant to provide the money he needs. In the meantime, he has repeatedly threatened to close the border, but this time, with a new group of migrants heading north , he gave a definite timetable and suggested a visit to the border within the next two weeks.
A substantial closure could have an especially heavy impact on cross-border communities from San Diego to South Texas, as well as supermarkets that sell Mexican produce, factories that rely on imported parts, and other businesses across the U.S.
The U.S. and Mexico trade about $1.7 billion in goods daily, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which said closing the border would be "an unmitigated economic debacle" that would threaten 5 million American jobs.
Trump tweeted Friday morning, "If Mexico doesn't immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States through our Southern Border, I will be CLOSING the Border, or large sections of the Border, next week."
He said several times that it would be "so easy" for Mexican authorities to stop immigrants passing through their country and trying to enter the U.S. illegally, "but they just take our money and 'talk.'"
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke out Saturday against cutting off aid to Central America, declaring that "foreign assistance is not charity; it advances our strategic interests and funds initiatives that protect American citizens."
And a group of House Democrats visiting El Salvador denounced the administration's decision to cut aid to the region.
"As we visit El Salvador evaluating the importance of U.S. assistance to Central America to address the root causes of family and child migration, we are extremely disappointed to learn that President Trump intends to cut off aid to the region," said the statement from five lawmakers, including Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The President's approach is entirely counterproductive."
The Trump administration has threatened before to scale back or cut off U.S. assistance to Central America. Congress has not approved most of those proposed cuts, however, and a report this year by the Congressional Research Service said any change in that funding would depend on what Congress does.
Short of a widespread border shutdown, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the U.S. might close designated ports of entry to re-deploy staff to help process parents and children. Ports of entry are official crossing points that are used by residents and commercial vehicles. Many people who cross the border illegally ultimately request asylum under U.S. law, which does not require asylum seekers to enter at an official crossing.
Border officials are also planning to more than quadruple the number of asylum seekers sent back over the border to wait out their immigration cases, said an administration official. The official said right now about 60 migrants per day are returned and officials are hoping to send as many as 300 per day. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about internal plans and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
Trump's latest declaration came after Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said his country was doing its part to fight migrant smuggling. Criminal networks charge thousands of dollars a person to move migrants through Mexico, increasingly in large groups toward remote sections of the border.
"We want to have a good relationship with the government of the United States," Lopez Obrador said Friday. He added: "We are going to continue helping so that the migratory flow, those who pass through our country, do so according to the law, in an orderly way."
Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico's foreign relations secretary, tweeted that his country "doesn't act based on threats" and is "the best neighbor" the U.S. could have.
Alejandra Mier y Teran, executive director of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce in San Diego, said the mere threat of border closures sends the wrong message to businesses in Mexico and may eventually scare companies into turning to Asia for their supply chains.
"I think the impact would be absolutely devastating on so many fronts," said Mier y Teran, whose members rely on the Otay Mesa crossing to bring televisions, medical devices and a wide range of products to the U.S. "In terms of a long-term effect, it's basically shooting yourself in your foot. It's sending out a message to other countries that, 'Don't come because our borders may not work at any time.' That is extremely scary and dangerous."
Merchant reported from Houston, Lucey from Washington. Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Mexico City, Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Colleen Long, Catherine Lucey and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.