Donald Trump faced a new torrent of criticism on Wednesday as he moved ahead with plans to build a wall on the Mexican border via executive order.
“The secretary of homeland security, working with myself and my staff, will begin immediate construction of a border wall,” the US president said to applause at the Department of Homeland Security. “So badly needed. You folks know how badly needed it is as a help.”
In a long promised, highly polarising crackdown on immigration, Trump also signed an executive order to slash funding for so-called “sanctuary cities”.
The actions reflect a strong anti-immigration streak in the Trump White House, which includes attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller.
“A nation without borders is not a nation,” the president said. “Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders, gets back its borders. I just signed two executive orders that will save thousands of lives, millions of jobs and billions and billions of dollars.”
Trump claimed that “we’re in the middle of a crisis on our southern border”, citing an “unprecedented surge” of illegal immigrants from Central America that was harming both the US and Mexico.
But the likely effectiveness of the planned wall is fiercely disputed. More Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the US than have migrated to the US since the end of the 2007-08 financial crisis, according to the Pew Research Center. Research shows that immigrants are more law-abiding than non-immigrants.
Adrienne Watson, national press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, said: “Until President Trump releases his tax returns, we should assume this wall is just another big scam like Trump University and that he’s profiting off its construction. If the administration would like to prove us wrong, they are free to release his tax returns at any time.”
Trump promised a border wall on the day he launched his campaign for president in June 2015. He used the same speech to brand some Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists”. The border wall pledge often got one of the biggest cheers at Trump’s campaign rallies, where mostly white crowds chanted: “Build that wall!”
Now he is keeping his word. The president spoke of gangs and drug cartels currently terrorising the US-Mexico border. “The day is over when they can stay in our country and wreak havoc. We are going to get them out and get them out fast.”
He told his audience their ranks would be boosted by an additional 5,000 border agents and a trebling of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
In an interview with ABC News, Trump said he expected construction of a border wall to start within months and that planning is already under way. US taxpayers would have to initially fund the wall, but Mexico would ultimately foot the multi-million dollar bill, adding that negotiations for the reimbursement would start “relatively soon”.
Earlier Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, told reporters: “Building this barrier is more than just a campaign promise. It’s a commonsense first step to really securing our porous border.
“This will stem the flow of drugs, crime, illegal immigration into the United States. And yes, one way or other, as the president has said before, Mexico will pay for it.”
But retired Gen John Kelly, who was sworn in as secretary of homeland security on Wednesday, told senators during his recent confirmation hearing that building a wall along the southern border alone would not work.
“A physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job,” said Kelly, who will oversee border security. “It has to be really a layered defence.”
To be effective, he said, the wall would need to be patrolled by law enforcement officers, sensors and observation devices. The problem of drugs crossing the border would have to be tackled by partnering with Latin and South American countries to address the issue at its roots.
Trump’s plans prompted an immediate outcry from immigrant advocates, who said he was jeopardizing the rights and freedoms of millions of people.
“The border wall is about political theater at the expense of civil liberties,” said Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition immigrant advocacy group.
“It is not national security policy. Border communities are among the safest in the nation and patrolling them with tens of thousands of heavily armed, poorly trained, unaccountable agents puts lives at risk. This will turn these communities into de facto military zones,” Ramirez said.
Initially Trump may rely for funding on a 2006 law that authorised several hundred miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile frontier. That bill led to the construction of about 700 miles of fencing designed to block both vehicles and individuals on foot.
Spicer added: “There are a lot of funding mechanisms that can be used. At this point his goal was to get the project started as quickly as possible using existing funds and resources that the department has.”
Trump is expected to discuss the matter with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto when he visits the White House next week. On Wednesday, Mexico’s foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, was due to arrive in Washington for talks with the US government.
An executive order for the wall will also increase detention space for illegal immigrants on the southern border and end the catch-and-release system which, Spicer claimed, “has led to the deaths of many Americans”. Currently, some immigrants caught crossing the border illegally are released and given notices to report back to immigration officials at a later date.
The second order will strip federal grants from sanctuary cities – a term that usually refers to cities where local officials do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts that could lead to deportation.
“Federal agencies are going to unapologetically enforce the law: no ifs, no ands, no buts,” Spicer said. “It directs the secretary to look at funding streams that are going to these cities of federal monies and look at how we can defund those streams.”
The state department will take steps to ensure countries of origin accept the return of illegal immigrants who committed criminal acts, Spicer added.
The order drew swift criticism. Frank Sharry, director of America’s Voice, a progressive immigration reform advocacy group, said Republicans had led a crusade in recent years that had “caricatured and distorted” the purpose of sanctuary cities.
The policies in place in over 300 jurisdictions, he said, were born from a public safety point of view. “Local jurisdictions and local law enforcement want to focus on getting bad guys off the streets, not terrorizing immigrant communities on behalf of Trump’s deportation force,” Sharry said.
Sanctuary cities have enabled undocumented immigrants to come forward to report crimes and cooperate with police without having to fear the threat of deportation. Sharry pointed out that Rudy Giuliani, a staunch supporter of Trump, was a vigorous defender of sanctuary cities while serving as the mayor of New York City.
“This is hard-nosed community policing,” Sharry said.
Spicer rejected reports about a draft memo suggesting that Trump was considering reviewing whether a defunct CIA programme to interrogate terrorist suspects in secret overseas “black site” prisons should be revived.
“It is not a White House document,” the spokesman said. “I have no idea where it came from, but it is not a White House document.”
There were also reports on Wednesday that Trump would order a temporary ban on most refugees and suspend visas for citizens of some Middle Eastern and African countries. Spicer declined to comment in detail, saying: “You’ll see more action this week about keeping America safe.”
Representative Linda Sánchez of California, vice-chairperson of the House Democratic Caucus, said: “A wall is the exact opposite of what America stands for. What’s worse, like his broken promise to show his tax returns after the election, President Trump has no capability to tell the truth about who will pay for his beloved wall.”
Democratic senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said: “President Trump’s divisive policies that build walls and take money away from local police do nothing to make us safer. America’s greatness is rooted in our immigrant history, and those who try to turn our country against immigrants are preying on the worst kind of prejudice.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, the White House had not circulated copies of the documents or briefed reporters on the details, as has been typical practice in past administrations.
Earlier on Wednesday Trump said he would launch a “major” investigation to look into voter fraud in the country, despite numerous studies showing it is extremely rare.
The president tweeted: “I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and … even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time).”
Trump was stung by his loss of the popular vote in last November’s presidential election and blamed it, without evidence, on votes cast by millions of illegal immigrants.
Several members of Trump’s own party have rejected the falsehood. House speaker Paul Ryan said: “I’ve seen no evidence to that effect. I’ve made that very, very clear.” Republican senator Lindsey Graham urged the president to stop damaging the credibility of America’s democracy.
Democrats were even more aggressive, sending letters to the 102 chief election officials and attorney generals in all 50 states requesting all cases in which their offices had determined that an individual who cast a vote in the November election was prohibited from doing so.
Representative Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the House committee on oversight and government reform, said: “President Trump wants a major investigation of voter fraud – well, now he has one. He continues to be obsessed with false numbers and statistics, but these are not ‘alternative facts’, and there is no evidence to support these claims.
“What is a fact is that Republicans in state houses across America have passed restrictive laws that impair the ability of legitimate voters to participate, and they use the myth of voter fraud to justify their abuses. We should be expanding the ability of legitimate voters to exercise their rights – not degrading them.”
Trump’s own attorneys dismissed claims of voter fraud in a legal filing responding to Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s demand for a recount in Michigan late last year.
“On what basis does Stein seek to disenfranchise Michigan citizens? None really, save for speculation,” the attorneys wrote. “All available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.”
After a highly divisive start to his tenure, Trump promised on Wednesday: “I will be, I promise you, a president for everyone. We will bridge our divisions, heal our wounds and unify our country, and if we do that, if we work together, then there is nothing we cannot achieve as Americans. The future is limitless.”