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Trump, threatening to shut US-Mexico border, may also escalate troop presence

Motorists wait in line to cross the border into Calexico, California from Mexicali, Mexico on April 1, 2019 in Mexicali, Mexico. US President Donald Trump announced the aid cut-off to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala last week and threatened once again to close the US border with Mexico in response to the migrant surge. (SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) *FOR USE WITH THIS STORY ONLY*

The Trump administration may send more troops to the border, officials said Tuesday, as delays grow at ports of entry and the president contemplates closing all or some of the crossings this week.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has conferred with the Pentagon about the possibility, an aide said. President Donald Trump first ordered the National Guard to the border a year ago.

“The secretary has been in constant communication with the acting secretary of defense,” a senior Department of Homeland Security official told reporters Tuesday. “Right now we’re receiving extensive DOD support. … We’ve been in conversations with DOD about how to bolster that support.”

Trump threatened last week to shut the border, drawing sharp warnings of economic chaos and devastation in Texas and other border states, and in industries that rely on cross-border trade. Customs personnel have been shifted to the border from around the country, and away from ports of entry, to help patrol more remote areas.

On Tuesday afternoon, Trump reiterated his threat, though he shifted the onus onto Democrats, rather than Mexico or Central American nations, to persuade him not to take that step. And he shrugged off projections of economic harm.

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“Security is more important to me than trade,” he said. “ … If we don’t make a deal with Congress, the border’s going to be closed, 100 percent.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what sort of deal he was referring to or demanding.

He complained that the number of asylum-seekers has overwhelmed the system, forcing a return to a “catch and release” approach in which migrants are detained briefly, then asked to return for a hearing months or even years later.

“Our system is absolutely maxed out,” he said. “It’s a very unfair thing.”

“The system is on fire,” the DHS official said in a briefing call, speaking on condition he not be identified by name. “We now face what we call a systemwide meltdown.”

The official acknowledged that shifting personnel has already had an impact on lawful trade and border crossings.

Wait times in Brownsville on Monday were around 180 minutes, twice as long as peak last year. At Otay Mesa crossing in San Diego, the day ended with a backup of 150 trucks that hadn’t been processed.

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“This will not be without impact on the American people,” the official said. “When it comes to port closures, that all depends on how the situation unfolds this week.”

At the White House, press secretary Sarah Sanders sidestepped questions about what authority the president has to close the border, saying that “Democrats are leaving us absolutely no choice at this point. … It may be that it’s the best decision that we close the border.”

Asked about the economic impact, she said, “It’s not our first choice.” But she said, “His No. 1 priority is to protect life.”

Trump will visit Calexico, Calif., on Friday, where about two miles of 30-foot steel slat fencing replaced a much shorter fence last October made of aging Vietnam-era landing pad material.

On Tuesday he seemed to recognize that Mexico has bolstered efforts to intercept migrants from Central America before they reach the U.S. border. But he defended his decision cutting aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the source of the migrants — aid intended to improve conditions in those countries and blunt the urge to flee.

“They don’t do anything for us,” he told reporters. “ … We’re giving hundreds of millions of dollars to these three countries” and they have been “taking advantage of the United States for years. … They arrange these caravans, and they don’t put their best people in those caravans. We’re not going to have it anymore.”

There is no evidence that the governments of those countries arrange the groups of migrants who flee through Mexico hoping for asylum in the United States.

Sanders said the president “is not working on a specific timeline” for closing the border. Last week, he said he will likely issue such an order by the end of this week.

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© 2019 The Dallas Morning News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.