Dana Milbank: On the border, Trump alone couldn’t fix it. In fact, he broke it.

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters about border policy during a fundraising event, Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Washington • I’ll admit it: President Trump is right. There’s a crisis on the southern border.

The existence of the crisis is as obvious as its cause: Trump. He didn't single-handedly create this mess, but he definitely made it worse.

He pursued not a policy but an instinct, following emotion rather than empiricism. Now, an immigration policy of toughness and fear has backfired in tangible ways.

Customs and Border Protection reported on Tuesday that 103,492 migrants were either apprehended or turned away along the southern border in March (with about 90% attempting to cross illegally), the largest number in 12 years and more than quadruple the 23,557 in Trump’s first full month as president, and double the level seen early last fall. The open-border, catch-and-release, amnesty-loving, no-enforcement Obama administration never did this poorly.

Fully 60% of those apprehended are families or unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, part of a more than 370% increase in families trying to enter the country over the past six months. Customs and Border Protection can't keep up with this growing humanitarian disaster.

The underlying source of the migration — violence in Central America — wasn’t Trump’s doing. But he compounded the trouble. The bellicose talk of wall-building and a zero-tolerance crackdown gave migrants an incentive to hurry to the United States. The 2018 campaign hysteria about caravans and the country’s limited ability to stop them, meant to frighten Americans, served as an advertisement for asylum for would-be migrants. The Border Patrol found only 13 groups of 100 or more in fiscal 2018; over the past six months, since Trump drew attention to the caravans, border agents have encountered 104.

The attempt to crack down on asylum, including holding applicants in Mexico, encouraged more migrants to attempt illegal crossings. The profusion of enforcement crackdowns — including the administration's half-baked family separation policy — strained and distracted personnel. The government shutdown and unstable management (continuing this week with the purge of top officials at the Department of Homeland Security) slowed the government's response to the migration surge. The president's recent decision to end anti-violence and anti-poverty assistance to three Central American countries will worsen the root cause of migration.

How much of the current mess would have happened without Trump is unknowable. But, by his own standard, he deserves all the blame, because he took all the credit for a decline in border crossings in 2017. "We've already cut illegal immigration at the southern border by 61%," he said in early 2017, one of many such boasts. "You know, the border is down 78%. Under past administrations, the border didn't go down — it went up," he boasted that summer.

Now it's up more than 500% from 2017's low point.

The immigration experience, I fear, will become the pattern for Trump's other policy adventures. In economic and national security policy, too, he has cast aside long-standing policies and precedents embraced by both parties, dismissing expertise under the belief that he alone can fix things — that his "gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else's brain." The consequences might not be felt until Trump is out of office.

For immigration, though, the effects are rapid and evident. The president's sole solution — Build the wall! — isn't terribly effective against those seeking asylum. Asylum seekers typically come through legal ports of entry — or at least they did until the fear of being held in appalling conditions in Mexico spurred many to attempt illegal crossings. This week, a federal judge blocked the Trump policy of holding asylum seekers in Mexico, and Trump's press secretary responded by describing the judge as a "liberal activist."

Trump is thrashing about for a solution: an emergency declaration that takes funds from the military for a border wall; a threat to shut the border entirely; and an attempt to blame President Barack Obama.

The president could do something useful, such as curbing the southward flow of guns that has worsened the violence in Central America. Instead, he continues to blame the migrants for drugs and violence, even though most are families with children. He also could be working with Congress to change asylum laws and make it easier to return illegal immigrants — including children — to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. And he could work with those countries and Mexico to deter migration and reduce its causes.

But this would mean seeking help from the same people he disparaged as he went it alone on the border, aggravating the problem. It would be an acknowledgment that he alone couldn't fix it. In fact, he broke it.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.