President Donald Trump took a significant step toward carrying out his signature — and most controversial — campaign promise Wednesday, ordering the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a pair of executive orders, Trump also ordered an increase in enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, a clampdown on so-called “sanctuary cities,” a boost in the number of Border Patrol officers and expansion of detention centers for those caught trying to sneak across the border.
The president signed the orders during a visit to the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday where he promised the measures would save thousands of lives, millions of jobs and billions of dollars. He said it would improve security for both Mexico and the United States.
The federal government will cover planning and construction costs initially, but Trump reiterated his insistence that Mexico ultimately will pay for the wall.
“We’re in the middle of a crisis on our southern border,” he said. “The unprecedented surge of illegal migrants from Central America is harming both Mexico and the United States. And I believe the steps we will take starting right now will improve the safety in both of our countries. It’s going to be very, very good for Mexico. A nation without borders is not a nation. Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders.”
Walls and fences already are constructed along more than 600 miles of the border, and the pros and cons of building a full-blown wall along the entire 1,900-mile border have long been debated in Texas, which has 1,254 miles of the border. Even many Republican proponents of a secure border have agreed it’s impractical for a major structure to be built along the entire length because of international treaties and geographic features.
U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, is a staunch supporter of stronger border measures and commended Trump’s actions, but noted the nation needs a wall “where we can build it.”
“I truly believe we need an all of the above approach to border security so immigrants go through the legal ports of entry instead of between them,” Williams said in a statement.
A surge of Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty has overwhelmed the U.S. immigration system. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended 408,870 people along the southwest border last year. Among them were 117,300 unaccompanied children and families from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Just 15,402 Mexican children and families attempted the illegal crossing.
The immigration directives appear to be the most ambitious of a series of executive orders that the real estate mogul has signed since taking office Friday.
The first directive, in addition to ordering funds for the planning, designing and construction of the wall, also authorized the hiring of 5,000 more U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and tripling the number of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to intercept, track down and deport immigrants in the United States illegally.
The second, which Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an immigration hardliner, helped write, directs the Department of Homeland Security and the attorney general to withhold federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes, from states and cities where local officials limit their cooperation with federal authorities on immigrants in detention. It also creates an office within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide services to victims of crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally.
Immigrant-rights groups said they’re already lining up a list of lawyers willing to work free of charge to fight the expected removal orders and help refugees unite with families still overseas.
Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice Education Fund, charged Trump with essentially “taking a wrecking ball to the Statue of Liberty.”
Several of Trump’s promises on immigration can’t be fulfilled without congressional help, including paying for the wall and ending federal funding to sanctuary cities. He has the support of Republican leaders in the House and Senate, but he will face opposition from Democrats and some more moderate members of his party.
Critics immediately denounced the measures.
“Local police have implemented policies on how to deal with the fact that they have large populations of immigrants who live and work in their communities but who are afraid to come forward,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat. “I don’t think Donald Trump knows more about policing in America’s cities then actual chiefs of police, but apparently Trump thinks he does.”
Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, raised other issues. “The wall’s multi-billion-dollar price tag could be better spent investing in education, improving our infrastructure, and supporting crucial programs such as Medicare and Social Security,” he said.
Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, questioned who would harvest fruits and vegetables for American dinner tables. The majority of U.S. farmworkers are in the country illegally, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“Who is going to feed the guests at Trump hotels and golf courses? Who is going to feed Donald Trump?” Rodriguez said.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the administration will move first against immigrants “who have violated our laws.”
Spicer also indicated that immigrants brought into the country illegally as children would not be a priority for enforcement. But others worried that while Trump’s policies may not target the recipients of the deferred-action program, they might still be caught up in enforcement.
“What we know is that Donald Trump’s strategy is to take the word criminal and expand it as much as is humanly possible,” said Greisa Martinez, advocacy director of United We Dream.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services continues to take applications for the so-called DACA program, which defers action for those who entered the country as children, but the executive order didn’t outline any safeguards for DACA recipients.
In Mexico, there was no official comment from the government. But there was lots of criticism of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who is scheduled to meet with Trump in Washington on Tuesday. Critics said Pena Nieto should cancel the meeting.
“They will greet you with a door slammed in your face,” former leftist presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas warned Pena Nieto in a statement.
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report.