el paso border migrants A group of 127 migrants from Guatemala line up at the border in El Paso on March 7, 2019. (Jaime Rodriguez Sr./CBP)

Ports Open or Closed? Nielsen Heads to Border as Economic Impact Warnings Sound

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen headed to the Mexican border this week amid threats from President Trump to close the southern land ports and cautions from key Republicans to be mindful of the economic impacts.

“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!” Trump tweeted Saturday.

At the National Republican Congressional Committee spring dinner in Washington on Tuesday, the president elaborated. “Mexico, I said I’m closing it and I really wanted to close it, but now Mexico is saying, ‘No, no, no,'” Trump said. “…But they don’t want the border closed. And you know who else doesn’t want the border closed? The Democrats. They don’t want the border closed. And I agree, it’s going to be a big toll. But trade, and commerce, and making money for our country — it’s all very important, but to me the most important job I have is the security of our country, even more important than those other things that I talk about all the time.”

Today, he tweeted: “Congress must get together and immediately eliminate the loopholes at the Border! If no action, Border, or large sections of Border, will close. This is a National Emergency!”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned that shutting the U.S.-Mexico border “would only produce an economic calamity” with “consequences even more devastating than a trade war with the Chinese.”

U.S. exports to Mexico reached a record high last year, with $207 billion in products — nearly 80 percent of exports south of the border — transported into Mexico by truck or rail. The Laredo Chamber of Commerce says about 16,000 trucks and 1,400 rail cars cross the border each day in their city. San Ysidro in California sees 120,000 commuter vehicles and 63,000 pedestrians cross back-and-forth each day for work, school, shopping and more; when the border there was closed for five hours in November, the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce estimated the loss at $5.3 million.

“Closing our doors to the $1.7 billion dollars in daily goods trade with Mexico would be an unforced error that would inflict lasting damage on U.S. markets and economic growth,” the Chamber said Friday.

Rattled by talk of the a border closure, the price of Hass avocados from Michoacán, Mexico, soared 34 percent Tuesday. Steve Barnard, president and chief executive of Mission Produce, the largest distributor and grower of avocados in the world, told Reuters that the U.S. would run out of avocados in three weeks if the border shut down.

“You couldn’t pick a worse time of year because Mexico supplies virtually 100 percent of the avocados in the U.S. right now,” Barnard said. “California is just starting and they have a very small crop, but they’re not relevant right now and won’t be for another month or so.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill that “we certainly have a crisis at the border.”

“I think the president’s right about that,” McConnell said, but “closing down the border would have potentially catastrophic economic impact on our country, and I would hope we would not be doing that sort of thing.”

National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said today that he didn’t know of any decision yet by Trump on a border closure “but anything we can do to ameliorate the economy story we will do.”

Kudlow said he’s “talked to various officials and DHS and others who are more knowledgeable than I,” and it is
“possible” to keep freight lanes while closing standard travel lanes.

Nielsen’s first stop on her border trip was El Paso, to be followed by Yuma, Ariz., on Thursday and meeting up with Trump in Calexico, Calif., on Friday.

“The secretary will meet with frontline operators to assess the crisis, the department’s response, and efforts to surge federal government resources to the area to restore order,” DHS said. “She will also review the implementation of measures announced earlier this week to reassign port-of-entry personnel to support the humanitarian response and to provide the relief needed for agents to resume their security missions, including the impact this personnel reallocation has had on trade and travel.”

The congressman whose district includes Calexico, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), slammed talk of a border closure as “reckless.”

“Closing our southern border will have a severe economic impact – not just in the border region but across our nation,” Vargas tweeted. “Just last year we imported nearly $350 billion in goods from Mexico. We cannot afford the cost of closing the border for even one day.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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