Special: What's happening right now at the U.S.-Mexico border?

Mar. 29, 2019 AT 9:32 p.m. EDT

The panelists discussed where things currently stand with immigration and the wall between the two countries.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Hello. Is the president going to close the U.S. border with Mexico next week? And what is happening right now at the border? There’s a crisis with the – with the migrants seeking asylum. All those issues, important ones on the front of immigration. And that’s what we’re going to cover tonight here on the Washington Week Extra.

I’m Robert Costa. And joining me to discuss where things stand on these issues and along the southern border, Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour ; Eliana Johnson, White House correspondent for POLITICO ; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times ; and Hallie Jackson, White House correspondent for NBC News and anchor for MSNBC Live.

President Trump has declared the situation at the border with Mexico a national emergency, calling it, quote, “an invasion.” And he says he may close the border as soon as next week if Mexico doesn’t allow – pretty much has to stop allowing illegal immigrants to come into the United States.

The Department of Defense meanwhile is reallocating 1 billion (dollars) to build a long 57-mile fence, that’s according to acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan who testified before Congress this week.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen told Congress the agency is facing a, quote, “systemwide meltdown” because of the influx of migrants. She asked for medical and legal assistance as well as the ability to return unaccompanied minors to their countries.

Hallie, is the president going to close down the border or is this political talk?

HALLIE JACKSON: He’s threatened it before, right? We all remember that and then it never happened. So based on past precedent, I think we’re probably at a 50/50. That’s probably fair to say. I will say that this is something he has threatened to happen just in the last few hours, when he was at Mar-a-Lago, very imminently, if you will, that he was very likely to do it – and I’m paraphrasing him here.

That said, if he – immigration for him is an issue he loves to talk about and one that his base likes to hear about. But if he does this, he’s going to run up on another big issue that he loves to talk about and his base likes to hear about, which is trade and the economy essentially. And the president seems to be trading off one for the other.

PETER BAKER: Yeah. That it would be a really big thing to genuinely close the border. We have a lot of trade going on with Mexico. This is all legal, by the way, you know. A lot of businesses rely on the traffic back and forth, and so it’s hard to imagine that he would follow through. He has threatened this before. He’s threatened other things before. I remember being on the plane with him just a couple of months ago coming back from Buenos Aires – I’m going to cancel the NAFTA deal next week; it hasn’t happened yet. And he’s talked about maybe I’ll sign the birthright executive order, getting rid of birthright citizenship; didn’t happen. So he tends to kind of say things like this and you never know, is it really about to happen or is he expressing some frustration, is he kind of trying to motivate his own staff, his own administration to act more toughly or is he trying to change the subject from maybe health care, which maybe didn’t work out as well as he’d like this week?

MR. COSTA: Changing the subject from health care or is he just adding more to the plate?

ELIANA JOHNSON: You know, it’s difficult to know what the president’s motivations are and I think sometimes fruitless to speculate about them. But I think the president is, I think we know, likes to make immigration a central issue. And he is in campaign mode. We saw him do this during the midterms, a lot of tough talk about immigration and the influx of migrants coming over the border. I think we see him gearing up for 2020 and making this a central issue again. During the midterms, he stopped talking about those caravans the day after the 2018 election. And so I think we see the president pivoting towards the 2020 campaign, beginning to talk about immigration once again.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: There are – it’s, of course, an issue with the border and that is that there are a high number of families and family units coming across. So he’s talking about something that is actually happening. And people that I’ve talked to, organizations that work with immigrants, they are very worried about the idea that there are facilities built for single men that now are filled with young children and families and they think that they’re not sure, if this continues to go, where all these people might go.

But add to that the fact that the president likes to, we’ll say, mislead on some of the numbers around the border. And as a result, the president could use this situation – and it is a very real crisis issue, if not at a crisis, national-emergency issue possibly, but it’s at a fever pitch, even for everyone who – even for people who want a lot of immigrants coming into the United States. So it’s hard to say, of course, I think, whether or not he’ll actually close the border, but I think he is getting a sense, probably from the Department of Homeland Security, that things are different now and that if you’re going to seize on it for the political will, this might be the time to do something drastic because we have numbers to back it up.

MR. COSTA: The president just fought a 35-day shutdown that ended in January on the issue of immigration. Is he prepared for another standoff on this issue?

MR. BAKER: I think he likes a standoff on this issue, sure, because whether he wins or loses he wins, right? He wins either because he gets the policy he wants to have or he has some impact on the border, which he’d like to have. And remember, early on when he came in, just the tough talk alone seemed to discourage people from coming across and it did seem to have an impact.

And he wins if he doesn’t win because it’s an issue that resonates with people who support him and they like the idea that he’s out there fighting. They cheer him on when he’s quarrelling with the Congress over the shutdown. And from his point of view, it consolidates a base that has been his primary focus politically for a long time.

MS. JACKSON: I think everything Peter said is spot on. I would just add I think there is a real – two things here – a real sense that when this standoff happens, because it won’t be probably until the fall, we’re going to be already several months into the Democratic debates, right? We’re going to be really into 2020 at that point. And the political climate may feel different than it did in January.

I’d also just come back to the idea that if the president actually went through and took this drastic step of seriously shutting down the whole border, there will be massive repercussions that I’m not sure the West Wing has fully gamed out at this point.

MS. JOHNSON: Yeah, the president actually has several key decisions coming up on trade. He’s facing an end-of-May deadline to make a decision on whether to impose auto tariffs. This is something that many of his aides are pressing him not to do, but that would have enormous economic ramifications, the first one being that auto prices, car prices would go up, the cost of servicing your car would go up. The other being that his administration is in the midst of a push to get Congress to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, their replacement for NAFTA. And the final one being that if the president does go through with his plan to close the border, it would have an immediate economic impact on trade in North America. And so I think you could see sort of a coalescing of all these issues into something that could really impact global trade.

MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra . You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch it all on the Washington Week website. While you’re there, check out the Washington Week­ -ly News Quiz.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and we’ll see you next time.

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