The Trump administration on Sunday demanded that Mexico and three Central American countries curb the surge of thousands of undocumented migrants heading to the United States, noting that the homeland security chief for former President Barack Obama agrees there is an immigration crisis at the southern U.S. border.
"We need your help," acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in an interview on ABC News. He said Mexico needs to solidify its southern border with Guatemala to prevent the caravans from heading north through Mexico to the U.S. and that the three Central American counties need to curb migrants from leaving their countries.
He left open the distinct possibility that President Donald Trump would close the U.S. border with Mexico in the coming days, even as he says he intends to cut off about $500 million in U.S. aid to the three Northern Triangle countries.
"Jeh Johnson admits we were right" about a crisis on the southern U.S. border, Mulvaney said, referring to the Obama homeland security secretary. "We hate to say we told you so, but we told you so."
On Saturday, Johnson told Fox News, “By anyone's definition, by any measure, right now we have a crisis at our southern border."
There were 4,000 apprehensions of migrants at the border one day last week and the U.S. is on pace for 100,000 for all of March.
"That is by far a greater number than anything I saw on my watch in my three years as secretary of Homeland Security,” Johnson said.
Mulvaney said if the three Central American countries do not curb migration to the U.S., "there's little reason to continue sending them money."
Current Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen last week signed a regional border security compact with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to curb the illegal migrant surge and interdict the flow of drugs into the U.S.
But Mulvaney said the three countries' "actions will speak louder than words."
The White House official said, "Congress can fix this" with tougher immigration controls along the U.S., but that "it's clear the Democrats are not going to help us. So we're looking to cutting off aid and closing the border."
Trump said on Twitter Saturday, "It would be so easy to fix our weak and very stupid Democrat inspired immigration laws. In less than one hour, and then a vote, the problem would be solved. But the Dems don’t care about the crime, they don’t want any victory for Trump and the Republicans, even if good for USA!"
He added, "Mexico must use its very strong immigration laws to stop the many thousands of people trying to get into the USA. Our detention areas are maxed out & we will take no more illegals. Next step is to close the Border! This will also help us with stopping the Drug flow from Mexico!"
After Congress earlier this year refused to fund Trump's request for money to build a border wall, he declared a national emergency to tap money allocated for other programs to build the wall. Both houses of Congress passed legislation to overturn Trump's national emergency declaration, but he vetoed it and the House of Representatives last week failed to override the veto.
Congressional action would be needed to cut off aid to the three countries. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Trump's order a "reckless announcement" and urged Democrats and Republicans alike to reject it.
Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat and chairman of the Hispanic Caucus, warned in a statement released Saturday that cutting off aid will further destabilize the Northern Triangle countries.
"By cutting off desperately needed aid, the administration will deprive El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras of critical funds that help stabilize these countries by curbing migration push factors such as violence, gangs, poverty and insecurity. Ultimately, this short-sighted and flawed decision lays the groundwork for the humanitarian crisis at our border to escalate further,” he said.
Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at The Center for Global Development, says the administration’s strategy to shape migration through aid needs to be done right.
“If what the United States wants to do is prevent irregular child migration in a way that works and is cost-effective, it should not do what it has traditionally done — spend 10 times as much on border enforcement trying to keep child migrants out as it spends on security assistance to the region," he said. "In fact, smartly packaged security assistance" is the only thing that has been "shown to reduce violence effectively and cost effectively.”