President Trump had been vocally considering shutting down the southern border until he scaled back slightly on Thursday, giving Mexico one year to decide whether or not they'll comply with his demands. His White House team probably talked him back from the ledge, since it seems he’s the only one in his own administration willing to take such a drastic step.
Indeed, senior staffers and Department of Homeland Security officials view closing ports of entry, what Trump calls a border shutdown, as a method of “last resort.” It’s not often that Trump entirely turns his back on his administration’s 2 cents, but when he does, it’s generally over immigration. This isn’t the first threat of this nature from Trump, and surely it won’t be the last, because, as is evident by his recent backtrack, the president’s not actually serious about shutting down the border. He really just wants the immigration debate to be framed in his favor. He hopes this will all be seen as a dichotomy between his pro-American immigration policy and the Democrats’ anti-American one.
It’s easy to see how empty Trump’s threat was: If he were to actually close the border, there would be dire economic consequences. It’s estimated there’s $1.5 billion worth of commerce occurring along the southern border every day. Meanwhile, from an immigration standpoint, nearly 500,000 people cross the border legally each day, and that’s just through Texas ports. With a border closure, shipments of vegetables and other goods would be halted, truck drivers blocked and stranded, and tourists denied passage of any kind. Trump loves to claim credit for the strong economy, but if he were to close the border, a plunge in stocks would most certainly follow.
It would punish a lot of innocent people, and Trump knows it. Following through on this threat as a political statement would have been extremely costly for Trump. But a claim like this one does force the Democrats who are running for president to reveal their stance on immigration, opening them up to attacks from Trump.
After all, President Trump’s 2016 campaign relied on the anxieties of middle America over immigrants taking jobs. He likely won’t stray from this strategy for the 2020 election, which is news to no one, including Democrats. But as Trump opponents elaborate on their positions in response to his pressure, the president is hoping they fall into his rhetorical trap by labeling themselves as open-border activists or “soft on crime” for their tolerance toward illegal immigration.
Trump recently unleashed a characteristic Twitter storm on the subject, prompting Democratic presidential hopefuls Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from Texas, and Julián Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, to respond with their own sweeping immigration plans. For his part, Castro divulged that he wouldn’t consider an immigrant entering the U.S. without papers, no matter the circumstance, a federal crime. Trump will have a field day tearing down this proposal by attempting to rely on his “tough on crime” mentality, even though the electorate has steered away from this Reagan-era viewpoint.
O’Rourke is a native of El Paso, Texas, a city experiencing overcrowding due to customs and Border Patrol agents being reassigned to take care of unauthorized migrants. O’Rourke has highlighted Trump’s naive understanding on this matter by emphasizing that immigration policy is actually heavily tied to foreign policy, a reality Trump likes to avoid, evidenced by his recent call to cut off aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which would only exacerbate the flow of immigrants toward our borders.
One other presidential hopeful, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., already tried to distance herself from Trump by passionately advocating for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, known as “Dreamers.” On April 3, she introduced a bill to Congress, perhaps intended to differentiate herself from primary opponent O’Rourke, that would allow "Dreamers" to work as staffers or interns in Congress.
The immigration debate will be the main focus of the 2020 election, which means Democrats must fine-tune their positions on immigration in order not to fall into Trump’s rhetorical trap. But we should all remember that Trump’s first two years of hard-line stances on immigration hasn’t actually alleviated the biggest source of conservative apprehension: the surge in migration. In fact, March 2019 saw the highest migrant rate since 2008.
Who knows, Trump could easily be provoked once again to follow through on his threat, even if his original intent was to force Democrats to show their cards. But if he does, he’s not going to do anything but hurt his chances at a 2020 victory — and the everyday Americans he claims to champion.
Natalie Dowzicky (@Nat_Dowzicky) is a researcher at a think tank in Washington, D.C., and a Young Voices contributor.