President Donald Trump acted on two of the most fundamental — and controversial — elements of his presidential campaign, declaring on Wednesday that he would build a wall on the border with Mexico and greatly tighten restrictions on who can enter the U.S.
Trump signed a pair of orders to set in motion the construction of a “physical wall” across the 1,989-mile length of the southern border and to strengthen immigration enforcement within the U.S. The second order includes an attempt to crack down on “sanctuary cities” that refuse to allow their police to enforce federal immigration law.
“Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders, gets back its borders,” Trump said in a speech at the Department of Homeland Security, where he signed the two actions. The agency has primary jurisdiction over the border and would enforce many of Trump’s immigration restrictions.
Trump pointed out families in the audience with relatives who had been killed by undocumented immigrants. He predicted that a wall and more aggressive immigration enforcement “will save thousands and thousands of lives.”
The Trump administration is also considering a 120-day suspension of refugee admissions and cutting the total number allowed into the U.S. in the current fiscal year to 50,000 from 110,000. Those actions may be announced Thursday to deliver on Trump’s campaign promise of “extreme vetting” of those from countries plagued by terrorism, according to a person familiar with the plan.
The moves may also include an order directing the Pentagon and State Department to provide a plan to create safe areas in Syria and the surrounding region in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await firm settlement.
In an interview with ABC News, Trump said that construction on the wall could begin “within months” and that Mexico will reimburse the U.S. for the cost, though Trump has indicated he will ask Congress to spend billions of federal tax dollars upfront.
“Ultimately, it will come out with what’s happening with Mexico,” Trump said, according to part of an interview released on Wednesday. “We’re going to be starting those negotiations relatively soon.”
The Mexican peso, which has been among the worst performing major currencies since the U.S. election, reversed earlier losses after news of Trump’s plan emerged and was up 2.2 percent at 5:00 p.m. in New York. The prospect of a large-scale construction project on the border that will drive up demand for cement, concrete and crushed stone had investors bidding up stocks of building-materials companies.
The executive order regarding the wall instructs the Department of Homeland Security to deliver a report in six months detailing how to build the barrier and how much money Congress will be asked to provide, both for construction and to acquire land from private owners on the border.
The order specifies that the wall must be “a contiguous, physical wall or other secure, contiguous and impassable physical barrier,” a definition that appears to prohibit fencing or electronic surveillance.
Trump called for hiring 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents and 10,000 immigration officers, though that move is subject to available appropriations. And Trump directed the Department of Homeland Security to allocate what money it can to building new detention facilities to house undocumented immigrants apprehended near the border.
The order prioritizes the removal of immigrants who have been convicted or charged with a criminal offense or abused public benefits provided by the government, similar to the policy President Barack Obama set.
A second order gives the Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security the ability to withhold federal grants from so-called sanctuary cities that do not help the federal government deport immigrants. It’s unclear whether that penalty will have any impact, however, because the order says funding cannot be withheld in violation of the law or when federal dollars are needed for law enforcement.
Trump has repeatedly said he would force the Mexican government to pay for the wall, but may use existing appropriations for border security to start construction. Mexico’s government has rejected the notion that it will ever pay for the wall.
“I don’t think Mexico is going to appropriate dollars from their Congress to pay for this,” Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said at an event hosted by Bloomberg Government Wednesday morning.
Higher visa fees for citizens of Mexico and Central American countries could help offset the cost, he said. He pegged the price of the wall at $10 billion to $20 billion and said his committee would have to authorize the project.
Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who chairs an appropriations subcommittee, said he expects Trump to submit a request for extra spending this year for both border security and the military.
The border wall — and who will pay for it — has already drawn fire from Democrats.
“The bottom line here is this is another divisive policy and it’s another polarizing policy,” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday. “I think the American people are going to be able to see through this.”
On a conference call with reporters led by the pro-immigrant group America’s Voice, activists said Trump’s actions would ultimately harm the country.
“Donald Trump is wasting absolutely no time taking a wrecking ball to the Statue of Liberty,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice Education Fund, which advocates for undocumented immigrants. “He’ll be walling our country off, both figuratively and literally.”
Trump made no secret of his plans for immigrants during his campaign. His next target is expected to be a U.S. refugee program that President Barack Obama expanded in his second term in response to strife across Africa and the Middle East.
Trump has warned that the U.S. risked allowing extremists to slip into the country disguised as refugees, pointing to terrorist attacks such as the killing of a French priest and a bombing at a German music festival. He’s said Germany’s admission of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war was a “disaster.”
The U.S. admitted about 12,500 refugees from Syria in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to State Department figures. About 85,000 refugees from across the world were resettled that year, up from about 70,000 the year before.
No refugee from the Syrian civil war has been implicated in a terrorist attack within the U.S.
McCaul said in an interview that he expects Trump to sign an executive action to require stronger vetting of visa applications for people coming from countries including Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Iran. He said it would be up to Congress to specify how the vetting is conducted.
“The executive order isn’t going to get that much in detail,” he said.
Trump once proposed a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration to the U.S.; after drawing bipartisan criticism, he subsequently proposed blocking immigration from countries with a “proven history” of terrorism. Other than Syria, he hasn’t specified what countries would meet that definition.