AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump is again threatening to close the southern border unless Mexico blocks all illegal immigration into the United States. Here he is speaking to reporters in Florida today.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mexico's tough. They can stop them, but they chose not to. Now they're going to stop them. And if they don't stop them, we're closing the border. They'll close it. And we'll keep it closed for a long time. I'm not playing games.
CORNISH: Critics say Trump is playing politics and not doing enough to address the humanitarian crisis on the border. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He joins us now. And, Joel, what exactly is the president proposing? How would it work?
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, that's a good question. President Trump says he'll close, quote, "large sections," unquote, of the border next week unless Mexico takes action. But we should say that he's made this kind of threat before and not followed through. And the White House provided no further details. Neither did the Department of Homeland Security. They deferred questions back to the White House.
Meanwhile, the Mexican government is basically calling Trump's bluff. The foreign minister responded by tweeting, quote, "Mexico does not act on the basis of threats," unquote. And there's also a pretty real chance that this kind of move could backfire because it would have dire economic consequences not only for Mexico, but on the U.S. side of the border as well.
CORNISH: You said that he's made this kind of comment before, but do we know why he's making it now?
ROSE: Well, there's no question that the number of migrants arriving at the southern border is surging. We're on pace for more than a hundred thousand migrants apprehended at the border this month. That's the highest monthly total in more than a decade. The majority of these migrants are families and children from Central America who are trying to get asylum here. Immigration authorities say the system is at the breaking point. They're calling it a national security crisis.
This week, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sent a letter to Congress asking again for big changes to U.S. immigration law that would allow her department to detain and deport families more easily.
CORNISH: Is Congress any closer to considering immigration reform than it's been in the past?
ROSE: The short answer to that is no. Several attempts at passing immigration legislation have failed before under President Trump. And Congress does not seem to have any appetite for trying again right now. That has not stopped the administration from trying. Officials have been out giving interviews and making speeches all week. Just today, Secretary Nielsen warned that the immigration system is in a quote, "freefall," unquote.
Critics of the administration say that they are exploiting this situation at the border in sort of a cynical photo-op to advance these same proposals that they've been pushing for years. And in the process, these critics say, that the administration may be making the problem worse because they have been so focused only on deterrence and on building a wall. In fact, some say that the president's tough talk may have actually encouraged more migrants to try and cross the border right now in case it gets harder to get into the U.S. later on.
CORNISH: So what would those critics do about the situation on the border?
ROSE: They say that they would start at the source, in Central America, with the reasons why these migrants are leaving their countries in the first place. They're fleeing violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Here's Ur Jaddou with America's Voice.
UR JADDOU: The realities on the ground in these countries that people are fleeing from are not good. And they have been left unaddressed for too long. It's time for us to take all of that seriously.
ROSE: Jaddou and other critics of the administration say that is the long-term fix - giving these countries more aid and more support. In the short run, these critics say that the Homeland Security should be more focused on taking care of the migrants who are here, these families who sometimes spend days in metal cages at overcrowded Border Patrol stations.
But the critics are questioning whether the Trump administration is actually looking for solutions here. They say the president seems more interested in using the chaos at the border as a talking point for his 2020 campaign.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thank you.
ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.