Pentagon set to send 300 more troops to Mexico border, some in contact with migrants

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Military troops return from a test deployment with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents after conducting a large-scale operational readiness exercise at the San Ysidro port of entry with Mexico in San Diego, California, U.S., January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON(Reuters) – The Pentagon said on Friday that it expected to send about 300 additional troops to the border with Mexico including roughly 100 cooks who would hand out meals, breaking with past policy to avoid troops coming in contact with migrants.

The move is the latest sign of a growing U.S. military support role for President Donald Trump’s politically charged immigration policies.

Earlier this month, Trump said he would have to mobilize more of the military at the U.S. border with Mexico after listening to stories about migrants crossing the border from people attending a Republican fundraiser.

The Pentagon has previously said there were no plans for U.S. forces to interact with migrants as they support border agents dealing with illegal immigration.

In addition to the cooks, the Pentagon is expected to send 160 drivers and 20 lawyers, Pentagon spokesman Charlie Summers said.

“We will have some of our troops handing out meals, therefore would come in contact with migrants,” Summers said. He said it was an “amendment to the current policy.”

There are currently about 5,000 active-duty and National Guard troops near the border, though that number fluctuates.

There has been increasing concern about the military playing a growing role on the border with Mexico.

The Posse Comitatus Act, a federal law on the books since the 1870s, restricts using the U.S. Army and other main branches of the military for civilian law enforcement on U.S. soil, unless specifically authorized by Congress.

But the military can provide support services to law enforcement and has done so on occasion since the 1980s.

Earlier this month six Mexican military personnel questioned two U.S. Army soldiers near Clint, Texas. A U.S. military investigation found the American soldiers were in U.S. territory during the incident, while the Mexican personnel believed they were south of the border.

Trump has made immigration a signature issue of his presidency and of his re-election campaign. He declared a national emergency over the issue earlier this year in an effort to redirect funding from Congress to build a wall along the U.S. southern border.

On Wednesday, Trump reiterated threats to close part of the U.S.-Mexico border if Mexico doesn’t block what described as a new caravan of migrants headed north.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Trump rejects Mexican efforts in face of fresh migrant caravan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Marines help to build a concertina wire barricade at the U.S. Mexico border in preparation for the arrival of a caravan of migrants at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego, California, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday called on Mexico to do more to block a new caravan of migrants and asylum-seekers traveling through the country toward the United States, reiterating his threat to close the border or send more troops.

“A very big Caravan of over 20,000 people started up through Mexico,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “It has been reduced in size by Mexico but is still coming. Mexico must apprehend the remainder or we will be forced to close that section of the Border & call up the Military.”

Trump said Mexico was not doing enough to apprehend and return migrants and, without offering evidence, said Mexican soldiers recently had “pulled guns” U.S. troops.

He said the incident probably was “a diversionary tactic for drug smugglers” and armed troops were being sent to the border.

Mexican officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Trump’s statement.

Trump has made cracking down on immigration a priority that fueled his 2016 presidential campaign and election victory. More than 100,000 people were apprehended or presented themselves to U.S. authorities in March, according to the White House, which said it was the highest number in a decade.

In response to what Trump has described as a crisis, his administration has sent thousands of active-duty and National Guard troops to the border and moved border agents to handle an influx of migrants. Last month, Trump threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border if the Mexican government did not immediately stem illegal migration.

When Congress declined to designate money to build a border wall, Trump declared a national emergency earlier this year over the issue in a bid to redirect funding for the project, thrusting the immigration issue to the forefront of the 2020 presidential race.

The head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, Tonatiuh Guillen, on Tuesday pointed to an increase in deportations from the country, saying Mexico had returned 15,000 migrants in the past 30 days.

He did not specify where the people were deported to, but the majority of people traveling through Mexico to the United States are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where migrants say they are fleeing corruption, gang violence and entrenched poverty.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Susan Heavey and Bill Trott)

FBI arrests leader of armed group stopping migrants in New Mexico

FILE PHOTO: U.S. soldiers walk next to the border fence between Mexico and the United States, as migrants are seen walking behind the fence, after crossing illegally into the U.S. to turn themselves in, in El Paso, Texas, U.S., in this picture taken from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, April 3, 2019. The writing on the wall reads, "Help us Jesus Christ." REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – The FBI on Saturday said it had arrested Larry Hopkins, the leader of an armed group that is stopping undocumented migrants after they cross the U.S.-Mexico border into New Mexico.

The arrest came two days after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) accused the group of illegally detaining migrants and New Mexico’s Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered an investigation.

Hopkins, 69, also known as Johnny Horton, was arrested in Sunland Park, New Mexico, on a federal complaint charging him with being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a statement.

“We’re not worried about it, he’s going to be cleared,” said Jim Benvie, a spokesman for the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), blaming his arrest on political pressure from Lujan Grisham.

Hopkins is the “national commander” of the UCP, which has had around half a dozen members camped out on a rotating basis near Sunland Park since late February.

PATRIOTS OR FASCISTS?

The UCP describes itself as a “patriot group” helping U.S. Border Patrol cope with record numbers of Central American families crossing the border to seek asylum.

Dressed in camouflage and carrying rifles, UCP members have helped U.S. Border Patrol detain over 5,600 migrants in the last two months, Benvie said. Videos posted online by the group show members telling migrants to stop, sit down, and wait for agents to arrive. Critics accuse the UCP of impersonating law enforcement.

Crowdfunding sites PayPal and GoFundMe on Friday barred the group, citing policies not to promote hate or violence, after the ACLU called the UCP a “fascist militia.”

“Today’s arrest by the FBI indicates clearly that the rule of law should be in the hands of trained law enforcement officials, not armed vigilantes,” New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a statement of Hopkins’s arrest.

Hopkins was previously arrested in Oregon in 2006 on suspicion of impersonating a police officer and being a felon in possession of a firearm, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

NO STANDOFFS

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in a statement it did not support citizens taking law enforcement into their own hands and instead encouraged the public to be its eyes and ears on the border.

Benvie said the UCP was doing just that and had the support of local Border Patrol and police.

Mostly military veterans, UCP members carry weapons for self-defense and at no time pointed guns at migrants, as they have been accused of, Benvie said.

Despite having funding sources cut off, Benvie said the group’s online support had swelled since it came under attack this week. Its Facebook followers have more than doubled since Thursday.

Asked what the group would do if told to leave by state police, Benvie said they would probably go and, if they felt the order violated their constitutional rights, sue the state of New Mexico.

“There’s not going to be any standoffs, this isn’t the Bundy Ranch,” Benvie said, in reference to a 2014 armed confrontation in Nevada.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Christopher Cushing)

Trump attorney general’s ruling expands indefinite detention for asylum seekers

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in Washington, U.S. April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

By Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The U.S. Attorney General on Tuesday struck down a decision that had allowed some asylum seekers to ask for bond in front of an immigration judge, in a ruling that expands indefinite detention for some migrants who must wait months or years for their cases to be heard.

The first immigration court ruling from President Donald Trump’s newly appointed Attorney General William Barr is in keeping with the administration’s moves to clamp down on the asylum process as tens of thousands of mostly Central Americans cross into the United States asking for refuge. U.S. immigration courts are overseen by the Justice Department and the Attorney General can rule in cases to set legal precedent.

Barr’s ruling is the latest instance of the Trump administration taking a hard line on immigration. This year the administration implemented a policy to return some asylum seekers to Mexico while their cases work their way through backlogged courts, a policy which has been challenged with a lawsuit.

Several top officials at the Department of Homeland Security were forced out this month over Trump’s frustrations with an influx of migrants seeking refuge at the U.S. southern border.

Barr’s decision applies to migrants who crossed illegally into the United States.

Typically, those migrants are placed in “expedited removal” proceedings – a faster form of deportation reserved for people who illegally entered the country within the last two weeks and are detained within 100 miles (160 km) of a land border. Migrants who present themselves at ports of entry and ask for asylum are not eligible for bond.

But before Barr’s ruling, those who had crossed the border between official entry points and asked for asylum were eligible for bond, once they had proven to asylum officers they had a credible fear of persecution.

“I conclude that such aliens remain ineligible for bond, whether they are arriving at the border or are apprehended in the United States,” Barr wrote.

Barr said such people can be held in immigration detention until their cases conclude, or if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decides to release them by granting them “parole.”DHS has the discretion to parole people who are not eligible for bond and frequently does so due to insufficient detention space or other humanitarian reasons.

Barr said he was delaying the effective date by 90 days “so that DHS may conduct the necessary operational planning for additional detention and parole decisions.”

The decision’s full impact is not yet clear, because it will in large part depend on DHS’ ability to expand detention,” said Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas.

“The number of asylum seekers who will remain in potentially indefinite detention pending disposition of their cases will be almost entirely a question of DHS’s detention capacity, and not whether the individual circumstances of individual cases warrant release or detention,” Vladeck said.

DHS officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the decision. The agency had written in a brief in the case arguing that eliminating bond hearings for the asylum seekers would have “an immediate and significant impact on…detention operations.”

In early March, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the DHS agency responsible for detaining and deporting immigrants in the country illegally, said the average daily population of immigrants in detention topped 46,000 for the 2019 fiscal year, the highest level since the agency was created in 2003. Last year, Reuters reported that ICE had
“modified a tool officers have been using since 2013 when deciding whether an immigrant should be detained or released on bond, making the process more restrictive.”

The decision will have no impact on unaccompanied migrant children, who are exempt from expedited removal. Most families are also paroled because of a lack of facilities to hold parents and children together. 

Michael Tan, from the American Civil Liberties Union, said the rights group intended to sue the Trump administration over the decision, and immigrant advocates decried the decision.

Barr’s decision came after former Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to review the case in October. Sessions resigned from his position in November, leaving the case to Barr to decide.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Venezuelan scavengers vie with vultures for Brazilian trash

Venezuelan migrants wait while the rubbish truck unload at the garbage dump in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 13, 2019. Picture taken April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

By Anthony Boadle

PACARAIMA, Brazil (Reuters) – Surrounded by vultures perched on trees awaiting their turn, Venezuelan migrants scrape out a living scavenging for metal, plastic, cardboard and food in a Brazilian border town’s rubbish dump.

Trapped in a wasteland limbo, they barely make enough to feed their families and cannot afford a bus ticket to get away and find regular work in Brazilian cities to the south.

They blame leftist President Nicolas Maduro for mismanaging their oil-producing nation’s economy and causing the deep crisis that has driven several million Venezuelans to emigrate across Latin America.

Venezuelan Antony Calzadilla is seen at a garbage dump as his child waits for him, in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 13, 2019. Picture taken April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

Venezuelan Antony Calzadilla is seen at a garbage dump as his child waits for him, in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 13, 2019. Picture taken April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

“I left because I was dying of hunger. We are trying to get ahead looking through this rubbish. Every night I pray to God to take me out of here,” said Rosemary Tovar, a 23-year-old mother from Caracas.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled the political and economic upheaval in their country through Pacaraima, the only road crossing to Brazil, overloading social services and causing tension in the northern border state of Roraima. More than 40,000 Venezuelans have swollen the population of state capital Boa Vista by 11 percent, Mayor Tereza Surita told Reuters.

The influx has also been a headache for Brazil’s new, far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has so far resisted U.S. pressure to take a more forceful attitude against Maduro. About 3.7 million people have left Venezuela in recent years, mostly via its western neighbor Colombia, according to the World Bank.

A dozen Venezuelans scramble to grab bags of rubbish that tumble from the Pacaraima trash truck twice a day. They then sift through the piles as fetid plumes of smoke rise from the smoldering landfill. Sometimes they scavenge at night using headlamps.

“We are looking for copper and cans, and hopefully something valuable, even food,” said Astrid Prado, who is eight months pregnant. “My goal is to get out of here. Nobody wants to spend their life going through garbage.”

Charly Sanchez, 42, arrived in Brazil a year ago and has not been able to get to Boa Vista to get his work papers so that he can find employment.

“We live off this. We make enough to buy rice, maybe some sausage, but not enough to buy a ticket to Boa Vista,” he said.

Copper pays best, 13 reais ($3.30) a kilo, but it takes Sanchez a whole week to gather that much “wire by wire.”

On a lucky day he said he had found a discarded cellphone, but not today. Some spaghetti, a small jar of sugar and a bit of cooking oil was Sanchez’s pickings for the day.

A Venezuelan man holds pillows after scraping on a garbage dump in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 13, 2019. Picture taken April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

A Venezuelan man holds pillows after scraping on a garbage dump in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 13, 2019. Picture taken April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

Samuel Esteban, using a breathing mask for the smoke, stuffed cardboard into a large sack. For 50 kilos he will earn five reais, one third of the minimum monthly wage in Venezuela but just enough to buy a liter of milk in Brazil and some bread.

Tovar criticized Maduro for denying that Venezuela is facing a humanitarian crisis.

“He is so wrong. Look at us here in this dump,” she said. “If Maduro does not leave Venezuela, I will never return there.”

(Reporting and writing by Anthony Boadle; Additional reporting by Leonardo Benassatto; Editing by Tom Brown)

Trump administration seeks emergency court order to continue asylum policy

FILE PHOTO: Central American asylum seekers exit the Chaparral border crossing gate after being sent back to Mexico by the U.S. in Tijuana, Mexico, January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

By Tom Hals

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – The Trump administration rushed to save its program of sending asylum seekers back to Mexico by filing an emergency motion with a U.S. Court of Appeals, asking it to block an injunction that is set to shut down the policy on Friday afternoon.

The government told the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco the United States faced “a humanitarian and security crisis” at the southern border and needed immediate intervention to deal with the surging number of refugees.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg ruled the policy was contrary to U.S. immigration law. He issued a nationwide injunction blocking the program and ordered it to take effect at 8 p.m. EDT (midnight GMT).

Melissa Crow, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups that brought the case, said the stay should be denied to prevent irreparable harm to asylum seekers who could be unlawfully forced to return to Mexico.

Since January, the administration has sent more than 1,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, back to Mexico to wait the months or years it can take to process claims through an overloaded immigration system.

Seeborg’s ruling also ordered the 11 plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit to be brought back to the United States.

Although it is appealing and the lower court order had yet to take effect, Reuters reporters confirmed that the Trump administration was allowing some asylum seekers from Mexico to return to the United States.

President Donald Trump has bristled at limits on his administration’s ability to detain asylum seekers while they fight deportation, and the administration was in the midst of expanding the program when Seeborg blocked it.

The government’s filing on Thursday night with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked for two stays: a brief administrative stay, which would remain in place until the parties had argued the issue of a longer stay that would block the injunction during the months-long appeals process.

Judy Rabinovitz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who worked on the case, said there did not appear to be any justification for the request for the administrative stay since asylum seekers were already returning to the United States.

“There’s no urgency,” she said. “They are already complying with the court order.”

The 9th Circuit Court has been a frequent target for Trump’s criticisms of the judicial system, which has blocked his immigration policies on numerous occasions.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Tom Brown)

Inspired by migrant caravans, new wave of Cubans seek U.S. asylum

Cuban migrants, waiting for their appointment to request asylum in the U.S., receive food at a church being used as a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, April 6, 2019. Picture taken April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Julia Love

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) – Isel Rojas put his dream of leaving Cuba on hold when the United States ended a generous immigration policy for island residents. But watching coverage of migrant caravans heading from Central America toward the United States on Cuban television last year, he began to see a new path.

One morning in January, he woke up and told his wife he was finally ready. Fifteen days later, he was gone.

“If they can do it, why can’t we?” said Rojas, a 48-year-old who worked in agriculture in the eastern city of Holguin, recalling the images of young men and families traveling en masse to the Mexico-U.S. border.

Rojas is now waiting to apply for U.S. asylum in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, which has become a magnet for Cuban migrants.

Political repression and bleak economic prospects remain the primary reasons cited by Cubans for migrating from the Communist-ruled island, a Cold War foe of the United States. But some in Ciudad Juarez say news of the caravans also motivated them, giving them the impression the United States was accepting migrants.

Since early last year, the caravans have been a frequent target of U.S. President Donald Trump as he advocates for stricter immigration policies. Critics say the president’s statements about the caravans, including a series of angry tweets, have ironically enlarged the groups and publicized asylum as a possible avenue to legal status.

“The person who created the media coverage and who drove the issue of the caravans has been President Trump,” Tonatiuh Guillen, the head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, said on local radio last week.

The addition of Cubans to those flows is adding to the pressure on already overwhelmed shelters and border authorities in Mexico and the United States. More than 100,000 people were apprehended or presented themselves to authorities in March, the White House said on Friday, calling it the highest number in a decade. Trump has threatened a border shutdown or tariffs on Mexico in retaliation.

What’s more, some say Trump’s harder line on Cuban relations has contributed to a sense of gloom on the economically weak and tightly controlled island.

The White House and the Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mexico’s migration institute declined to comment.

‘TREATED LIKE EVERYONE ELSE’

Like Rojas, many Cubans who reached northern Mexico in recent months ultimately traveled with a smaller group, and caravans were not a factor for all who left. But a caravan of 2,600 migrants currently contained by authorities in southern Mexico, the largest this year, includes dozens from the island. Mexican immigration officials said they flew some 60 Cubans home on Friday.

In Ciudad Juarez, Cubans represent 75 to 80 percent of some 3,600 migrants in town, said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the state commission for population. The wait to apply for asylum is about two months, shelter directors say.

The bottleneck highlights a new reality: Cubans do not enjoy the same advantages they once did in the U.S. immigration system.

“For the first time this year, Cubans are being treated like everyone else,” said Wilfredo Allen, a Miami-based lawyer who works with Cuban migrants. “The special door for the Cubans has already closed.”

In 2017, U.S. President Barack Obama ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which allowed Cubans who reached U.S. soil to stay but returned any intercepted at sea, triggering a decline in immigration from the island.

In the first five months of fiscal-year 2019, 6,289 Cubans turned up at ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border without papers. That number is on track to nearly double the total for the whole of fiscal-year 2018, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

While Cubans generally face slightly better chances of receiving asylum than Central Americans because their tales of political persecution are often more clear-cut, success is anything but assured, Allen said.

Allen estimates only 20 to 30 percent of his Cuban clients will win their cases.

That message has not reached those in Ciudad Juarez, many of whom sold their vehicles, businesses or homes to finance the trip. Some have literally bet the farm.

“They say that we have priority, that (the United States) will accept us in one form or another,” said Rojas, who sold almost half his cattle. “They always accept us.”

A NEW ROUTE

Cubans lucky enough to get a U.S. visa, to visit family for example, can fly there legally and are eligible to apply for residency after a year in the United States. For most though, reaching the United States is no easy feat.

Even before “wet foot, dry foot” ended, Cubans began forging new routes, flying into countries in Central and South America with loose visa requirements and then heading north. Only a few countries, such as Guyana, do not require visas for Cubans.

Last year, Panama made it easier for Cubans to come to the country to shop, creating another opening for some from the island to reach Central America.

Arasay Sanchez, 33, said she was browsing the internet in a park one day when she saw a story about the caravans.

After selling her house and most of her belongings, Sanchez flew into Panama on Jan. 25, she said.

She relied on a seven-page guide she inherited from Cubans who had traveled to the United States, detailing everything from where to sleep to where to buy a phone. On the trail, it was among her most valuable possessions – she carried it in her clothes.

The route ended in Ciudad Juarez, regarded by many Cubans as a safer and more orderly place to seek asylum than other more crowded Mexican border crossings, despite its reputation as one of the world’s most violent cities. Ciudad Juarez, just south of El Paso, Texas, received relatively few asylum seekers until late last year.

Many are dismayed by the long wait they find, shelter directors say, and they are increasingly concerned about safety after reports of Cubans going missing in Mexico. Few leave the shelters, 10 migrants said in interviews.

Sanchez and her partner arrived in Ciudad Juarez in late February, moving from shelter to shelter and struggling with spicy Mexican food.

“Even the candy” has chile, she said, clutching the extra folds of fabric in her jeans to show she had lost weight.

Experts do not expect the flow of Cuban migrants to ebb anytime soon. Obama made it easier for Americans to travel to the island, generating new business. But that money dried up after Trump tightened the rules, said Pedro Freyre, a lawyer who studies the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

What is more, a gradual opening of the island’s private sector triggered a backlash from conservatives, creating headaches for small businesses, Freyre said.

Reaching the United States would end a long quest for Reinaldo Ramirez, a 51-year-old construction contractor from the western town of Jaguey Grande. Starting in 2006, he tried and failed to reach Florida seven times by boat – including the day Obama canceled “wet foot, dry foot.”

The new route has been just as arduous. After flying into Guyana in September, Ramirez and his wife had to hike across the Darien Gap, a remote stretch of jungle straddling Panama and Colombia. After they crossed the first time, Panamanian authorities deported them to Colombia, forcing them to repeat the trek.

Ramirez arrived in Ciudad Juarez about three weeks ago, and hundreds of asylum seekers are ahead of him in line. But he cannot help but feel that he is close.

“I’ve almost achieved my objective, my American dream,” he said.

(Reporting by Julia Love; additional reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez in Ciudad Juarez, Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, Sarah Marsh in Havana, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Peter Cooney)

White House softens tone after threat to close border with Mexico

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent cast his shadow on a plaque marking the boundaries of Mexico and United States, at Paso del Norte international border crossing bridge, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House took a step back from its threat to close the southern U.S. border on Tuesday, saying Mexico has begun to take actions to address the immigration problem on its end.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the Trump administration sees Mexico “stepping up and taking a greater sense of responsibility” for dealing with the immigration flows that U.S. officials say are overwhelming ports of entry along the border.

“They have started to do a significant amount more. We’ve seen them take a larger number of individuals” and hold those who have asylum claims in Mexico while they are being processed in the United States, Sanders told reporters at the White House.

“We’ve also seen them stop more people from coming across the border so that they aren’t even entering into the United States. So those two things are certainly helpful and we’d like to see them continue,” Sanders said.

Trump hinted at the shift earlier in a Twitter post earlier on Tuesday. “After many years (decades), Mexico is apprehending large numbers of people at their Southern Border, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,” he said.

Trump threatened on Friday to close the border with this week unless Mexico took steps to stop immigrants from reaching the United States illegally. Closing the border with Mexico could disrupt millions of legal border crossings and billions of dollars in trade.

Sanders said the administration was “looking at all options when it comes to closing the different ports of entry, what that looks like and what the impacts would be.”

She told Fox News the administration wanted Mexico to continue working to address the issue so “we aren’t forced to take drastic action like closing the ports of entry at our border.”

She said the administration’s Council of Economic Advisers is doing studies on the impact of closing different ports of entries to give Trump some options.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Alistair Bell)

Trump administration to hasten officer deployment to U.S.-Mexico border: statement

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen speaks beside Honduras' President Juan Orlando Hernandez (not pictured) during a multilateral meeting at the Honduran Ministry of Security in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera/File Photo

By Yeganeh Torbati

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration will speed up the deployment of hundreds of officers on the southern border of the United States and will dramatically expand a policy of returning migrants seeking asylum to Mexico, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Monday.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency first announced the redeployment of 750 officers to process a surge of migrant families entering the United States last week.

In a written statement, Nielsen said she had ordered CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to undertake “emergency surge operations” and immediately speed up the reassignment.

CBP also has the authority to raise the number of redeployed personnel past 750, and will notify Nielsen if they plan to reassign more than 2,000 officers.

The agency will also “immediately expand” a policy to return Central American migrants to Mexico as they wait for their asylum claims to be heard by “hundreds of additional migrants per day above current rates,” Nielsen said.

That would be a dramatic expansion of the policy, dubbed the Migrant Protection Protocols, put in place in January. As of March 26, approximately 370 migrants had been returned to Mexico, a Mexican official told Reuters last week.

Asked about the numbers, a DHS spokeswoman declined to confirm them and said the policy “is still in the early stages of implementation.”

The policy is aimed at curbing the flow of mostly Central American migrants trying to enter the United States. Trump administration officials say a system that allows asylum seekers to remain in the country for years while waiting for their cases to move through a backlogged immigration court system encourages illegal immigration.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued the Trump administration over the policy, claiming it violates U.S. law.

But following a March 22 hearing on whether the program should be halted, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco ordered both sides to submit further briefing on the question of whether or not the California court has jurisdiction to preside over the case, likely prolonging any decision on the policy.

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Grant McCool and Meredith Mazzilli)

Trump threatens to close U.S. border with Mexico next week

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S., March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Yeganeh Torbati and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON/LAKE OKEECHOBEE, Fla. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump threatened on Friday to close the U.S. border with Mexico next week, potentially disrupting millions of legal border crossings and billions of dollars in trade if Mexico does not stop immigrants from reaching the United States.

“We’ll keep it closed for a long time. I’m not playing games. Mexico has to stop it,” Trump said on a visit to Florida. Asked if he would close the Mexican border to all trade, Trump told reporters: “It could be to all trade.”

Trump has repeatedly vowed to close the U.S. border with Mexico during his two years in office and has not followed through. But this time the government is struggling to deal with a surge of asylum seekers from countries in Central America who travel through Mexico.

Department of Homeland Security officials warned that traffic with Mexico could slow as the agency shifts 750 border personnel from ports of entry to help process asylum seekers who are turning up between official crossing points.

“Make no mistake: Americans may feel effects from this emergency,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement. Nielsen said the personnel shift would lead to commercial delays and longer wait times at crossing points.

Nielsen and other U.S. officials say border patrol officers have been overwhelmed by a dramatic increase in asylum seekers, many of them children and families, fleeing violence and economic hardship in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

March is on track for 100,000 border apprehensions, the highest monthly number in more than a decade, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said on Wednesday. Some 90,000 will be able to remain in the United States while their asylum claims are processed, he said.

Mexico played down the possibility of a border shutdown.

“Mexico does not act on the basis of threats. We are a great neighbor,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Twitter.

It is not clear how shutting down ports of entry would deter asylum seekers, as they are legally able to request help as soon as they set foot on U.S. soil.

But a border shutdown would disrupt tourism and commerce between the United States and its third-largest trade partner, which totaled $612 billion last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’d be looking at losses worth billions of dollars,” said Kurt Honold, head of CCE, a business group in Tijuana, Mexico, in response to Trump’s threat. “It’s obvious he’s not measuring what he says.”

U.S. ports of entry recorded 193 million pedestrian and vehicle-passenger crossings last year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

As president, Trump has legal authority to close particular ports of entry, but he could be open to a legal challenge if he decided to close all of them immediately, said Stephen Legomsky, a former chief counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under Democratic President Barack Obama.

Trump is trying to convince Congress to sign off on a revised trade agreement with Mexico and Canada that his administration negotiated last year.

“Mexico has for many years made a fortune off of the U.S., far greater than Border Costs. If Mexico doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States through our Southern Border, I will be CLOSING the Border, or large sections of the Border, next week,” he said on Twitter.

Trump launched his presidential bid in June 2015 with a promise to crack down on illegal immigration, saying Mexico was sending rapists and drug runners into the United States.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Thursday that tackling illegal immigration is an issue chiefly for the United States and the Central American countries to address.

Trump has so far been unable to convince Congress to tighten asylum laws or fund a proposed border wall, one of his signature policies. Trump has declared a national emergency to justify redirecting money earmarked for the military to pay for its construction.

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by David Alexander, Anthony Esposito, Lizbeth Diaz and Andy Sullivan; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Grant McCool)