Written by Miriam Jordan
President Donald Trump has called for imposing tariffs on Mexico, the administration’s latest attempt to slow the stream of migrant families who have been arriving at the southwest border by the thousands each day.
It is just the latest move by the president to rein in illegal immigration after a series of executive orders, regulations, ramped-up border security and diplomatic threats have failed to dissuade Central Americans, mostly fleeing poverty and violence, from journeying north. In fact, migrant families have continued to arrive in unprecedented numbers.
Nearly 110,000 people were apprehended at or near the border last month, the largest number since 2007. On Wednesday alone, the Border Patrol in El Paso encountered a group of 1,036 migrants, the largest single group ever.
Since his days on the campaign trail, the president has made unauthorized immigration central to his agenda, framing it as a threat to national security that creates unfair competition for American workers. Thursday’s announcement that the government would impose across-the-board tariffs on Mexico until that country made significant reductions in the number of people entering the United States prompted a number of warnings: that it would impede manufacturing supply chains, jeopardize a new North American trade agreement, and impede cooperation with Mexico over immigration issues.
The bigger question — will it work — is unknowable for now. What is more clear is that little else has worked — in some cases because the administration’s initiatives are so constitutionally questionable that they have been blocked by the courts and not been given a chance to work.
Here’s a look at some of the policies the administration has tried to carry out.
In July 2017, the Department of Homeland Security undertook an experimental program in the El Paso, Texas, area under which it filed criminal charges against all adults illegally crossing the border and sent their children sent to government shelters.
It was effective: By October, the last month of the trial program, the number of families apprehended had dropped nearly two-thirds. That perceived success set the stage for a national rollout of the policy the following year, which would become known as the zero-tolerance program.
The attorney general announced on May 7, 2018, that all illegal border crossers would be referred for prosecution, prompting the forced separation of thousands of families. The practice was met with public outrage, and lasted until the president issued an executive order ending it on June 20. Afterward, the number of migrant families arriving at the border continued to increase.
Threats to close the border
Trump threatened in March to close all or part of the border with Mexico if the neighboring country did not “immediately” stop the flow of migrants passing through its territory to reach the United States.
“If Mexico does not immediately stop ALL the illegal immigration that enters the United States through our southern border, I will be CLOSING the border, or large sections of the border, next week,” the president said on Twitter.
The threat may have made the problem worse: There were widespread reports that smugglers who transport Central Americans across Mexico were telling those considering to come to the United States to move fast — before the president made good on his promise.
The border was never closed.
Scaling back asylum
Trump has criticized the asylum system, under which certain kinds of people facing persecution in their homelands can seek safe shelter in the United States. As the president sees it, many migrants with no legitimate claim are taking advantage of the asylum system to get into the country and build new lives while their requests are being adjudicated by an immigration judge.
In the fall, the president issued a proclamation preventing anyone who crossed the border between official ports of entry from making an asylum claim.
A federal judge in San Francisco blocked the policy’s implementation, one of several court orders that have prevented the administration from putting up barriers to asylum.
In February, the administration issued guidance to asylum officers who conduct “credible fear” interviews at the border, the first step applicants must pass, tightening standards for eligibility.
However, the vast majority of migrants entering the country are no longer being granted asylum interviews at the border. They skip this step altogether and seek asylum once they have been released into the interior of the country and are placed in deportation proceedings — so tightening standards for initial interviews became moot.
More recently, the Department of Homeland Security has said that Border Patrol agents would be trained to conduct the preliminary screening. Critics of such a policy say the agents are unlikely to be qualified for a job that is usually performed by asylum officers who often have law degrees. The administration has not carried out the plan.
Quotas for immigration judges
Last summer, the Justice Department, which oversees the immigration courts, imposed a quota requiring each immigration judge to complete 700 cases a year.
That directive has not dented the swelling backlog in the courts — one of the biggest reasons for delays in deporting migrants who are not eligible to remain in the United States. The backlog now exceeds 850,000, and grew substantially early this year when a partial government shutdown — a result of an impasse over Trump’s demand for border funding — closed the courts. In fact, the backlog has ballooned by more than 200,000 since Trump became president.
The government has begun to add judges but has failed to invest in modernizing the antiquated immigration system. For now, migrants heading to the United States can expect to live in the country for years before their cases are completed.
Limiting arrivals at border stations
Last year, Customs and Border Protection began limiting the number of asylum-seekers that it would process through ports of entry along the border, stranding thousands of applicants in Mexico for weeks as they wait for their numbers to be called.
The policy has encouraged tens of thousands of migrants to divert from well-staffed entry points and turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents in remote areas along the border.
Keeping asylum-seekers in Mexico
In January, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled a series of “migrant protection” protocols, commonly referred to as a “remain in Mexico” policy, calling for asylum applicants to be sent back to Mexico while their cases wind through the immigration courts. Since starting in California, the practice has been expanded to Texas, resulting in more than 6,004 asylum-seekers being returned to Mexico.
Vulnerable migrants, including pregnant women, parents with disabled children and transgender people have been among those returned.
Advocacy groups have sued to block the practice. A panel of district court judges has yet to rule on the legality of the policy, but has allowed it to remain in place for the time being.
Cutting off aid
In late March, Trump cut off $500 million in annual aid to Central American countries, saying that those nations were “taking our money” and “doing absolutely nothing.”
Trump said the move was intended to force leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to halt emigration from their countries.
But many experts said the policy would be counterproductive: That assistance, they said, was vital to addressing the root causes of migration, such as corruption, violence and poverty.
Detaining migrant families
In September 2018, the administration introduced a proposal to allow migrant families to be detained for indefinite periods of time. It was an attempt to alter a court settlement that limits the number of days children can remain incarcerated to about 20.
Following the end of a mandated comment period for the public, the government is expected to publish a formal regulation soon. It is almost certain to face legal challenges.
Sending the military to the border
In April 2018, the president ordered the Pentagon to deploy 4,000 members of the National Guard to the southern border.
In October that year, more than 5,000 active-duty Army troops were also sent to the border, a number that has since been cut back. But neither the National Guard nor the Army is allowed to actively engage in border enforcement activities. Most National Guard troops were performing duties such as erecting fences and cutting grass.
Trump has declared his intention to build a wall along the southern border since the start of his presidential campaign, though there is little new fencing to show for it. Congress appropriated $1.375 billion for border barriers in the 2019 fiscal year, less than the president’s request for $5.7 billion. In February, Trump declared a national emergency to access $3.6 billion from military construction projects to erect a wall. He also ordered $3.1 billion in funds to be transferred from counterdrug activities and a Treasury Department fund.
A federal court issued an injunction against the appropriation of such funds, and the court is still considering the larger case.