WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said U.S. soldiers on the border with Mexico may fire on migrants who commit violence and that people who cross into the country illegally would be detained in “massive” tent cities, as he sought to rev up his base ahead of elections next week.
In a speech at the White House on Thursday, Trump ratcheted up his attacks on the migrants, insisting without evidence that the impoverished families walking toward the U.S. are violent invaders who will endanger Americans’ safety if they’re allowed into the country.
“They’ve overrun the Mexican police and they’ve overrun and hurt, badly, Mexican soldiers,” Trump said of migrant “caravans” from Central America. “They want to throw rocks at our military? Our military fights back. I told them, ‘Consider it a rifle.”‘
While Trump tried to portray the caravans as a “crisis,” the closest group is still hundreds of miles from the U.S. border.
The speech is the latest effort by the president to stoke voters’ fears of immigration in hopes of boosting Republican turnout on Tuesday. In the past week, he’s also ordered thousands of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to stop the migrant caravans and proposed ending by executive order the Constitution’s guarantee of citizenship to anyone born in the U.S.
He promised to make it much more difficult for unauthorized immigrants to claim asylum, and urged “caravans” of migrants headed toward the border from Central America to turn back.
The Department of Homeland Security referred questions about the tent cities to the Department of Defense.
Trump said people apprehended entering the U.S. illegally would be held in tent cities on the Mexican border that he said are under construction by the military. “We’re going to hold them right there,” he said. “We’re not letting them into our country.”
Trump didn’t directly answer a question about whether the children of migrants would again be separated from their parents if they cross the border, and he suggested that if migrants commit violence such as throwing rocks at U.S. troops deployed to the border they could be met with gunfire. Trump was criticized by lawmakers in both parties earlier this year after his administration separated about 3,000 children from caregivers after they crossed the Mexican border.
“We’re working on a system where they’ll stay together,” Trump said of families caught after crossing the border.
Asked if the military would fire on the migrants, he said: “I hope there won’t be that.”
He said some of the migrants in the caravans threw stones at Mexican police and soldiers. “We will consider that a firearm. Because there’s not much difference,” Trump said.
Trump has long criticized U.S. asylum law, which allows migrants to request protection upon arriving in the country regardless of how they enter. Asylum claims are initially heard by immigration officers who must determine whether migrants have a “credible fear” of being returned to their home country. If so, they are granted future hearings in immigration courts and either held in detention or released into the U.S.
Senior Trump administration officials have previously encouraged asylum-seekers to make their claims at official ports of entry. But immigrant advocates at the border earlier this year said that Customs and Border Patrol officers made it difficult for migrants to cross bridges, turning them away at the midpoint between Mexico and the U.S. In June, officers were visible on bridges in the Rio Grande Valley, blocking pedestrians from crossing.
“Migrants seeking asylum will have to present themselves lawfully at a port of entry,” Trump said. “Those who choose to break our laws and enter illegally will no longer be able to use meritless claims to enter our country. We will hold them. For a long time, if necessary.”
About 20 percent of asylum applications were granted in 2017, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
If Trump attempts to indefinitely detain children in tent cities with their parents, he likely will run afoul of a court order forbidding the practice. Under a settlement agreement with the U.S. known as Flores, migrant children must be released either to guardians or to facilities supervised by the Department of Health and Human Services after no more than 20 days in immigration detention.
The speech follows a series of proposals and statements on immigration that Trump’s opponents have called outlandish stunts. Late Wednesday, Trump promoted a racially charged advertisement on Twitter showing an undocumented immigrant who killed two police officers in California smirking and boasting in court as the words “Democrats let him into our country” and “let him stay” flash across the screen.
Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, called the ad “sickening” and said Republicans “should denounce it.”
The targets of Trump’s verbal attacks expanded earlier on Wednesday to include House Speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow Republican who has raised millions of dollars for the party’s candidates, but who criticized Trump’s proposal to end “birthright citizenship.”
Babies born in the U.S. are deemed American citizens under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” Lawyers on both the right and left have said Trump can’t alter the interpretation of the amendment by fiat.
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