President Donald Trump moved aggressively to tighten the nation's immigration controls Wednesday, signing executive actions to jumpstart construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall and block federal grants from immigrant-protecting "sanctuary cities."
Trump signed the orders at the Department of Homeland Security Wednesday, shortly after the agency's new leader, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, was sworn in.
The move comes less than one week before Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto is slated to visit Trump in Washington on Jan. 31.
Construction on the wall will begin "in months," Trump said in an interview with ABC News, adding that planning for the wall is starting immediately.
The president also said the U.S. will be "reimbursed at a later date" by Mexico for the costs of building the wall — an idea that Peña Nieto flatly rejected earlier this month.
The cost of building such a wall has been estimated at at least $12 billion and perhaps $15 billion for a single-layer barrier. Roughly a third of the U.S.-Mexico border is currently blocked by a fence, as NPR's John Burnett has reported:
"According to an eight-year-old estimate by the Government Accountability Office, the border fence cost the government $3 million to $4 million a mile to build. Estimates for additional fencing — in harsher terrain — could surpass $10 million a mile."
News that the border wall plan is moving forward was criticized by Amnesty International USA, whose executive director, Margaret Huang, said, "This wall would say that those from outside the United States, especially from Latin America, are to be feared and shunned – and that is just wrong."
The border wall is included in an executive action titled Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements.
Trump's directive calls for hiring more Border Patrol agents and emphasizing the prosecution of criminal offenses related to the Southern border. It also expands detention capacity — a move that could increase the use of private for-profit prisons.
The Justice Department had already beefed up border prosecutions under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The new action suggests law enforcement will be more empowered to prosecute and remove those in the country illegally for minor offenses.
A second executive action, titled Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, directs the departments of Homeland Security and Justice to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities.
In that action, Trump is also restoring the Secure Communities Program — which had ceased to operate in 2014 after being used by both the Bush and Obama administrations to force state and local governments to share fingerprints and other data to help federal officials identify undocumented immigrants.
Several states and cities sought to opt out of that system, which was also criticized for sometimes resulting in cases of mistaken detention of U.S. citizens.
Wednesday's executive actions also seek to force other nations to take back criminal aliens by using leverage such as withholding U.S. visas. And it will allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement to more aggressively arrest, detain and remove people from the U.S.
The actions come one day after the president tweeted about new immigration policies, saying last night, "Among many other things, we will build the wall." Construction of a border wall was a keystone of Trump's presidential campaign.
Questions still surround the details of the plan for a wall — chief among them, how the undertaking would be paid for. A law already exists that experts say gives Trump the authority to start building the wall. It is the Secure Fence Act of 2006. It was bipartisan; it was overwhelmingly supported during the Bush administration.
The 2006 law envisions both physical barriers and high-tech features, like sensors and cameras mentions. It also mentions a two-layer fence — but that fence was never built, and the legislation didn't include money to pay for one. Ten years later, the process could begin in earnest.
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This story has been updated.