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President Trump Sends Mixed Signals About Plans For The Southern Border

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump is sending mixed signals about his plans for the southern border. His administration is backing off its criticism of Mexico after blaming that country for failing to stop a surge of migrants coming from Central America through Mexico to the U.S. Now Trump's taking aim at Congress. He says if lawmakers do not eliminate what he calls loopholes at the border, then he will just close it, or at least large sections of it. The president's economic adviser Larry Kudlow speaking today says, interpret Trump's tweets this way.

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LARRY KUDLOW: It shows his seriousness and how committed he is to restoring, you know, some semblance of law and order down there and to genuinely protect America's borders and its security.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and joins us now. Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This idea of shutting down the border has drawn intense opposition from businesses, economists, Republicans on the Hill. Right now, how likely does it seem that the president would actually do this?

ROSE: Kudlow said this morning that there has been no decision on whether to close the border. But he did acknowledge that the administration is looking at ways to balance the need to secure the border with the need to keep trade flowing by keeping truck lanes at the ports of entry open, for example. Kudlow said that President Trump understands that the U.S. and Mexico economies are intertwined. He also says the administration is getting more help from Mexico and now wants to see additional help from Congress.

SHAPIRO: Mexican officials have not said a lot about this. What kind of help do you think the Trump administration is talking about?

ROSE: Larry Kudlow did not offer any details, but our colleagues at Here & Now talked to White House deputy assistant Adam Kennedy earlier today. And Kennedy pointed out that Mexico is allowing asylum seekers from Central America to stay in that country while they wait for their day in U.S. immigration court. And Kennedy also talked about Mexico setting up, quote, "checkpoints."

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ADAM KENNEDY: I think the president has seen more action from Mexico. I think he's seen some good progress, and I think the president's keeping all of his options open.

ROSE: But we should also note that NPR's John Burnett has been down at the border between Mexico and Guatemala all week. And John says he's seen no checkpoints, at least where he is, and no signs that the Mexican government is controlling the flow of migrants into the country whatsoever.

SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, people continue to cross the border into the U.S. What is the Americans' plan to deal with the huge number of families that are arriving here?

ROSE: Right. You know, the Homeland Security estimates that 100,000 migrants crossed the border in March, roughly. That would be the biggest month in more than a decade - the biggest monthly total in more than a decade. And in response, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen canceled her meetings in Europe this week, headed back to the border. Last night, she appointed a new interagency head to coordinate the DHS response.

And it is a massive undertaking to care for and process the surge of migrants. They're mostly families and children fleeing from violence and poverty in Central America. Many of them are tired and sick from the journey. And Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, is moving up to 2,000 Customs agents away from the ports of entry to help process these migrants. And that's already leading to longer wait times for cars and trucks and pedestrians trying to cross the border at those ports. In El Paso, Texas, today, commercial truck drivers saw a five-hour wait time. But Nielsen says she has no choice.

SHAPIRO: So as we said, the Trump administration is pushing Congress to act. What are the chances that this Congress, which has tried and failed so many times to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, might do it in the next couple years before the next presidential election?

ROSE: Democrats in Congress do not seem interested in negotiating with the White House. They sent a letter to the administration yesterday, saying the president has been acting in, quote, "bad faith" on immigration. They say the administration's own policies are making the situation worse, and they urged the administration to address the root causes of violence in Central America instead of cutting foreign aid, as he says - as the administration says it's done this week and to funnel more resources to the border to process migrants' claims more quickly.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Joel Rose. Thanks a lot.

ROSE: Hey, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.