Donald Trump faced a fresh torrent of criticism on Wednesday as he moved ahead with plans to build a wall on the Mexican border via executive order.
“The secretary of homeland security, working with myself and my staff, will begin immediate construction of a border wall,” the US president said to applause at the Department of Homeland Security. “So badly needed. You folks know how badly needed it is as a help.”
Trump also signed an executive order that could slash funding for so-called “sanctuary cities”, and reinstated the “secure communities” program, which encourages broader cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agencies. The George W Bush-era program was eventually abandoned by the Obama administration due to criticisms that many undocumented migrants who had committed minor crimes or no crimes at all were being swept up in the program.
The actions reflect a strong anti-immigration streak in the Trump White House, which includes attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller.
“A nation without borders is not a nation,” the president said. “Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders, gets back its borders. I just signed two executive orders that will save thousands of lives, millions of jobs and billions and billions of dollars.”
Trump claimed that “we’re in the middle of a crisis on our southern border”, citing an “unprecedented surge” of undocumented immigrants from Central America that was harming both the US and Mexico.
But the likely effectiveness of the planned wall is fiercely disputed. More Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the US than have migrated to the US since the end of the 2007-08 financial crisis, according to the Pew Research Center. Research also shows that immigrants are more law-abiding than non-immigrants.
Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s immigrants’ rights project, said: “President Trump’s fantasy of sealing the border with a wall is driven by racial and ethnic bias that disgraces America’s proud tradition of protecting vulnerable migrants.”
Trump promised a border wall on the day he launched his campaign for president in June 2015. He used the same speech to brand some Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists”. The border wall pledge often got one of the biggest cheers at Trump’s campaign rallies, where mostly white crowds chanted: “Build that wall!”
Trump previously said a 1,000-mile wall and natural obstacles would guard the border
Now he is keeping his word. The president spoke of gangs and drug cartels currently terrorizing the US-Mexico border. “The day is over when they can stay in our country and wreak havoc. We are going to get them out and get them out fast.”
But after a highly divisive start to his tenure, Trump also promised on Wednesday: “I will be, I promise you, a president for everyone. We will bridge our divisions, heal our wounds and unify our country, and if we do that, if we work together, then there is nothing we cannot achieve as Americans. The future is limitless.”
In an interview with ABC News, Trump said he expected construction of a border wall to start within months and that planning was already under way. US taxpayers would have to initially fund the wall, but Mexico would ultimately foot the multi-million dollar bill, adding that negotiations for the reimbursement would start “relatively soon”.
But retired General John Kelly, who was sworn in as secretary of homeland security on Wednesday, told senators during his recent confirmation hearing that building a wall along the southern border alone would not work.
“A physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job,” said Kelly, who will oversee border security. “It has to be really a layered defense.” To be effective, he said, the wall would need to be patrolled by law enforcement officers, sensors and observation devices.
The president told his audience on Wednesday that their ranks would be boosted by an additional 5,000 border agents and a tripling of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
Trump’s plans prompted an immediate outcry from immigrant advocates, who said he was jeopardizing the rights and freedoms of millions of people.
“The border wall is about political theater at the expense of civil liberties,” said Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition immigrant advocacy group.
“It is not national security policy. Border communities are among the safest in the nation and patrolling them with tens of thousands of heavily armed, poorly trained, unaccountable agents puts lives at risk. This will turn these communities into de facto military zones,” Ramirez said.
Initially Trump may rely for funding on a 2006 law that authorized several hundred miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile frontier. That bill led to the construction of about 700 miles of fencing designed to block both vehicles and individuals on foot.
Spicer said that “at this point his goal was to get the project started as quickly as possible using existing funds and resources that the department has.”
Trump is expected to discuss the matter with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto when he visits the White House next week. On Wednesday, Mexico’s foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, was due to arrive in Washington for talks with the US government.
An executive order for the wall will also increase detention space for illegal immigrants on the southern border and end the catch-and-release system which, Spicer claimed, “has led to the deaths of many Americans”. Currently, some immigrants caught crossing the border illegally are released and given notices to report back to immigration officials at a later date.
Trump’s second executive order will strip federal grants from sanctuary cities – a term that usually refers to cities where local officials do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts that could lead to deportation.
“Federal agencies are going to unapologetically enforce the law: no ifs, no ands, no buts,” Spicer said. “It directs the secretary to look at funding streams that are going to these cities of federal monies and look at how we can defund those streams.”
The state department will take steps to ensure countries of origin accept the return of illegal immigrants who committed criminal acts, Spicer added.
US is paying for border wall because Mexico will pay ‘later’, Trump says
The order drew swift criticism. Frank Sharry, director of America’s Voice, a progressive immigration reform advocacy group, said Republicans had led a crusade in recent years that had “caricatured and distorted” the purpose of sanctuary cities.
The policies in place in over 300 jurisdictions, he said, were born from a public safety point of view. “Local jurisdictions and local law enforcement want to focus on getting bad guys off the streets, not terrorizing immigrant communities on behalf of Trump’s deportation force,” Sharry said.
Sanctuary cities have enabled undocumented immigrants to come forward to report crimes and cooperate with police without having to fear the threat of deportation. Sharry pointed out that Rudy Giuliani, a staunch supporter of Trump, was a vigorous defender of sanctuary cities while serving as the mayor of New York City.
“This is hard-nosed community policing,” Sharry said.
The ACLU’s Jadwat added: “The DHS deportation force has a track record of racial profiling and excessive force abuses, and expanding it will further erode the rights of millions of people who call our safe border communities home. Locking up asylum seekers who pose no danger or flight risk is unconstitutional and benefits nobody except private prison corporations and politicians looking to score rhetorical points. We will see the Trump administration in court if they go down that road.”
A provision in the executive order also removed privacy protections for non-US citizens, explicitly instructing immigration officials to “exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act regarding personally identifiable information.”
The removal of privacy protections will make non-Americans transiting through Customs entry points, at airports and elsewhere, liable to be searched more intrusively, according to a former senior Homeland Security official who requested anonymity.
The change was a “very insidious” shift away from the policies of the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations, the official said, and made it more likely for customs officials to search through non-citizens’ digital lives, including their social media accounts and personal devices.
Democratic senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said: “President Trump’s divisive policies that build walls and take money away from local police do nothing to make us safer. America’s greatness is rooted in our immigrant history, and those who try to turn our country against immigrants are preying on the worst kind of prejudice.”
Furthermore, there were also reports on Wednesday that Trump would order a temporary ban on most refugees and suspend visas for citizens of some Middle Eastern and African countries. But this was not announced, and Spicer declined to comment in detail during his daily briefing, saying: “You’ll see more action this week about keeping America safe.”
Spicer also rejected reports about a draft memo suggesting that Trump was considering reviewing whether a defunct CIA programme to interrogate terrorist suspects in secret overseas “black site” prisons should be revived.