On Closing the US-Mexican Border

Trump's threat will not make things better (and the notion of actually closing the border is insane).

In addition to stating he would stop aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, Trump also threatened on Friday to close the border with Mexico.  Via WaPo:  Trump threatens to close the southern border next week, saying he’s ‘not playing games’ 

This morning, Kellyanne Conway reiterated this position.  Via Politico:  Trump not bluffing about closing U.S.-Mexico border, Conway says

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Sunday that President Donald Trump is serious about possibly closing the U.S.-Mexico border this week.

“It certainly isn’t a bluff. You can take the president seriously,” she said on “Fox News Sunday,” adding, Congress “can fix this.”

“Congress can fix the problem of immigration that they’ve failed to fix. This president is looking at the metrics,” she said, adding the U.S. has “never seen a surge” in immigration “like this.”

On Friday, Trump said “there’s a very good likelihood” he would close the southern border this week.

“Mexico is going to have to do something, otherwise I’m closing the border,” Trump said.

I will start off by saying that Conway is actually right, at least in part, on the macro level:  we need a significant overhaul of our immigration laws and system, and the responsibility for that overhaul is squarely within the purview of Congress.  And Congress has, in fact, failed in this area.

However, in the more short-term, the Trump administration deserves a lot of blame for turning this current situation into a humanitarian crisis.  Their insistence on things like making asylum-seekers wait in Mexico before being attended to by US officials, as well as slowing the process, has led to desperate people acting in a desperate fashion, which has included illegally crossing the border rather than seeking asylum at border crossings

One thing is for certain:  a border wall will not fix any of this.  And if we are going to divert monies for the purpose of dealing with this situation, those funds need to go to dealing with asylum-seekers, not for wall construction.  Indeed, focusing on walls and closing the border will likely exacerbate the short-term crisis as desperate people try to come to the US before it is “closed.”

For example, the administration has put in place a process called “metering” to slow the access of migrants seeking asylum.  From Vox piece from later last year:

Before 2016, and in some cases as recently as six months ago, they would have had no problem and no delay. But for the last several months, the Trump administration has made a practice of limiting the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the US each day — a policy it calls “metering.” It’s the counterpart of the Trump administration’s months-long crackdown on asylum seekers entering the US illegally — telling those who do try to come legally that there’s no room for them, and ordering them to wait.

They don’t say how long the wait will be. And there’s no official way for asylum seekers to hold their spot or secure an appointment, no guarantee that they’ll ever be allowed to cross.

And so asylum seekers wait, for days or weeks or (increasingly) months: sometimes in migrant shelters whose capacity has stretched to the breaking point, sometimes huddling together on bridges, sleeping on the street, in the cold, vulnerable to the violence they hoped to escape in their home countries.


The Trump administration’s proposed solution is to legally codify the idea that asylum seekers should be held in Mexico, in limbo. On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that the administration would sign an agreement with the incoming government of Mexico that would force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico after starting the asylum process — changing the current practice of allowing them into the US to wait for their asylum claims to be heard. Dubbed “Remain in Mexico,” the new policy, if enacted, would essentially formalize what’s been happening on the ground these past few months.

More on metering from the NYT:

The agency is relying on a process called “metering” to limit the number of people who can be processed daily for asylum. Thousands of migrants are waiting on the Mexican side of the border as Customs and Border Protection officers process small numbers of people — 40 to 100 — each day.

So, let take very desperate people, make their situation more desperate, and then expect then not to behave even more desperately?  This defies any understanding of human behavior.

To all of this, a Bloomberg editorial notes the following:

Kevin McAleenan, the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, summed up the problem: Central American families “know that DHS must release them within 20 days, under court order, and that they will be allowed to stay in the U.S. indefinitely while awaiting immigration court proceedings.” With a growing backlog of nearly 830,000 cases, the wait can be years.

Rather than fixing the asylum system, the Trump administration has tried to drive applicants away. Federal courts blocked the effort to separate children from their families and to refuse applications from people crossing the border illegally between ports of entry. Now officials are trying to discourage asylum seekers at ports of entry by “metering” applications and forcing them to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed. (This may be unlawful too.)

In any event, the result is perverse: More asylum seekers are crossing the border illegally, in large groups, with the aim of turning themselves in. This is good news for the cartels that profit from their plight and use the ensuing distraction to draw resources away from policing drug-smuggling elsewhere on the border.

The answer isn’t walls and states of emergency, but more immigration judges and better policies. Process cases faster and the incentive to file bogus claims would diminish. That means appointing more judges, fixing the courts’ paper-based record-keeping system, hiring more asylum officers and letting them bring cases to conclusion. Press Mexico to control its southern border, where enforcement has lagged under the new administration. Don’t cut aid to Central America: Boost it, to strengthen justice and expand economic opportunity.

Beyond all of that, the notion of closing the US-Mexican border is simply insane.  There are almost one million legal crossings (by foot, by car, by bus, by truck, etc,) a day between the US and Mexico.  There are massive amounts of economic activity across that border daily.  And it isn’t just Mexicans who make money off those crossings.  Mexico is the US’ largest trading partner in the world.  And, of course, these border communities are symbiotically tied together–people live on one side of the border, and work on the other. Families live on both sides.  But sure, let’s just close it down, which won’t stop illegal crossings, by way, it will just shut down the legal one.

We desperately need some fundamental realism on the nature of the border, as well as the nature of the problems we are currently facing.  We need policies aimed at families seeking asylum, not individuals crossing primarily for jobs.  We need a better legal regime, and we need to move off simplistic answers like walls.  A lot of people also need to recognize the overwhelmingly positive aspects of our relationship with Mexico and with migrants from the south.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    People wondering what’s delaying the next recession can relax: closing down all trade with Mexico should do the trick.

  2. Mister Bluster says:

    Will legal employees who work in the United States and live in Estados Unidos Mexicanos who are prohibited from crossing the border to engage in their legal, gainful employment qualify to collect unemployment benefits that their legal employers have been paying for?

  3. Kathy says:

    Trade volumes aside, and these are huge, there’ slots of tourism as well. Mexicans visit border towns to go shopping in the US. Tijuana is a special case (and a free port, so you don’t even need a passport), but the legal drinking age in mexico is 18, so lots of young Americans cross the border to party.

    All that aside, too, there’s much that could be done if the border were integrated more closely.

    For example, Tijuana’s airport is right at the border line. A pedestrian bridge was built that leads to the US side, called the cross-border express or something like that. You can park your car in San Diego, and take a flight in Tijuana to elsewhere in Mexico (immigration is taken care of at the bridge).

    This is nice, but limited. Consider Reynosa/McAllen. they both have airports, which are a mere 24 km apart (abt. 15 miles). Wouldn’t it make more sense to have one airport for both cities? Especially so as they’re both low-traffic as far as I know, with some general aviation as well.

    Flip a coin and designate the unified airport on either side, then run a dedicated shuttle bus/van for a reasonable fee, all immigration and customs to be handled at the airport (to speed border crossings).

    Much the same could be done at other border pairs like El Paso/Juarez, Laredo/Nuevo Laredo, and perhaps elsewhere.

  4. Michael says:

    So, let take very desperate people, make their situation more desperate, and then expect then not to behave even more desperately? This defies any understanding of human behavior.
    Absolutely correct. Our narcissistic egotistical leader has no understanding of human behavior. It just ain’t in him.

  5. Mikey says:

    So, let take very desperate people, make their situation more desperate, and then expect then not to behave even more desperately? This defies any understanding of human behavior.

    The Cruelty Is the Point

  6. HankP says:

    One question I haven’t seen answered anywhere: Does trump actually have the power to close down border crossings, or is that another unconstitutional power grab?

  7. Mister Bluster says:

    @HankP:…or is that another unconstitutional power grab?

    This is a National Emergency! Emperor Pud can do anything he wants!

  8. Gustopher says:

    How do we get the refugees to decide that Mexico is good enough?

    The refugees are from further south, and are walking a thousand miles or so through Mexico. We have a thousand miles of opportunity to get them to stop. Can we give Mexico a Statue of Liberty of their own?

    We don’t want these refugees. Yes, we are a strong enough country that we could absorb them just fine. Yes, unemployment is basically nil, and we need workers — even unskilled workers. It’s stupid, but, we don’t want them. Our loss there.

    But if we don’t want them, we should be doing more to stop them long before they get to our borders. Make Mexico Great Again.

  9. HankP says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    I get the joke, but I was not aware that the President can just shut down the border whenever he feels like it.

  10. Kit says:

    We desperately need some fundamental realism on the nature of the border

    Whatever keeps us from embracing realism in this instance is almost certainly what keeps us from embracing it in so many others. Discovering and curing this mysterious malaise is the great project of our time.

  11. @HankP: I believe the president has the statutory power, but I am not sure of the scope.

    Nixon did early in the drug war (Operation: Intercept) and Reagan did it (I think it was after the murder of a DEA agent).

  12. Mister Bluster says:

    Supreme Court Justice Bluster will consult this document and get back to you.

    United States Constitution
    Article II Section 2
    1: The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

    2: He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

    3: The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

    Section 3
    He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.

  13. HankP says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Steven – I knew past Presidents have done it temporarily or increased security/searching, but I wasn’t aware that a President could just shut it down completely, for any length of time, for any reason whatsoever.

  14. @HankP: My guess is that if he tried to do that, the courts would be involved quickly as I don’t think that we know how far the statute stretches.

  15. Kathy says:

    If Dennison thinks he can close the border for over a month, and reap any benefits, he’d better think again (I know, asking the impossible).

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael: I disagree. He understands perfectly. He knows that since we can’t possibly take all of the world’s desperate people, we shouldn’t be in the asylum business at all. While it is sad, many people are going to have to resign themselves to dying in various refugee centers around the world–killed by narco-terrorists, ISIL radicals, Boko Haram, and whoever else is killing people and driving them from their homes. And while these people are certainly deserving of some sympathy, their plight is not the fault of the United States (even when it is) because if their forebearers had not chosen to live in shithole countries, they wouldn’t be facing the hardships they are facing now.

    Trump gets all of this. It’s the people who are opposing him that don’t get it.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    The Founding Fathers would weep over what has become of this country, Reagan and Goldwater would weep over what has become of the Republican Party, even Buckley would weep over what has become of the conservative movement…I can only hope that there will be a reckoning at some point in the future…it is surreal to live during the absolute worst presidency in American history…

  18. Jay L Gischer says:

    Is it just me, or does closing down the Mexican border seem like a very solid way to make sure Arizona and New Mexico go blue in the next election, and put Texas in play?

    I mean, wow, that’s not a small thing. That’s not a small impact. I am not for it, I’m against it. But it’s gobsmacking how dumb it is.

    I’ve been thinking that one big reason that so many CA districts flipped from red to blue in the last election cycle was because of the changes to tax law that capped mortgage interest and SALT deductions. This was not a small thing to many Californians, including those who lived in red districts. I can well imagine many of them thinking, “well if Republicans can’t keep my taxes low, they aren’t good for anything at all.”

    And now they want to shut down a border that has a million crossings a day. That’s going to hurt a lot of people, a good number of whom vote.

    My bet is that it’s a “fake” closure. A few crossings will close, for a little while. Long enough to get TV coverage, and then it will be “clarified” to something that’s nearly meaningless, but he made his headlines anyway.

  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jay L Gischer: It’s possible that Trump has finally figured out the swerve that he should have gone with on wall funding and will declare this knowing that Congress and the courts will block it and then spend a week or three complaining that he had the solution to the problem but no one will let him do what’s necessary.

    I also realize that my scenario is unlikely because Trump’s learning curve is so steep, but it’s still possible, I guess.

  20. Mexigrl64 says:

    What about the fact that he is trying to take away the rights of American citizens to cross the border into Mexico? I am scheduled to drive across the border on April 23. I have to be there the following week, because I am getting married. Will Mexico also close their incoming border? This is such a nightmare, and it should not affect law-abiding citizens.

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jay L Gischer: My bet is that it’s a “fake” closure. A few crossings will close, for a little while. Long enough to get TV coverage, and then he will declare victory and send all the troops home.

  22. Teve says:
  23. gVOR08 says:


    Long enough to get TV coverage, and then he will declare victory and send all the troops home.

    He can’t declare victory. He excites his base by fighting immigration. Winning would end the game.