WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump took a step back on Tuesday from his threat to close the U.S. southern border to fight illegal immigration, as pressure mounted from companies worried that a shutdown would cause chaos to supply chains.
Trump threatened on Friday to close the border this week unless Mexico acted. He repeated that threat on Tuesday but said he had not made a decision yet.
"Let me just give you a little secret: Security is more important to me than trade," Trump said at the White House. "I'm totally prepared to do it. We're going to see what happens over the next few days."
Closing the border could disrupt millions of legal crossings and billions of dollars in trade. Auto companies have been warning the White House privately that it would lead to the idling of U.S. plants within days because they rely on prompt deliveries of components made in Mexico.
"You can't build an auto without all the parts," said Kristin Dziczek, a vice president of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "Within a shift or two we would start to see some parts shortages, and some of those parts are so mission critical we would see the entire industry shut down within a week or so."
A typical vehicle is assembled from 30,000 parts and Mexico is the largest source of foreign components for U.S. manufacturers, who have geared their production to lean inventories and just-in-time delivery. Seats, for example, often go back and forth across the border several times as they are produced in stages, said Charlie Chesbrough, a senior economist with Cox Automotive Inc., an Atlanta-based research and marketing company.
"I don't see how the industry can react in any way," Chesbrough said. "You need very specific parts to go into a vehicle."
Even if the administration decides to exempt auto parts from a border closing, that would be difficult to do in practice, Dziczek said. Late Tuesday, Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the administration was considering ways to limit damage, telling CNBC one idea might be to find ways to allow freight across the border to "ameliorate the breakdown in supply chains."
The Chamber of Commerce, the largest U.S. business lobbying group, has been in contact with the White House to discuss the "very negative economic consequences that would occur across the country," said Neil Bradley, the group's top lobbyist, on a call with reporters.
Trump praised efforts by Mexico to hinder illegal immigration from Central America at its own southern border. On Monday, the Mexican government said it would help regulate the flow of migrants.
"I really wanted to close it," Trump said Tuesday night at a fundraiser for congressional Republicans.
The Mexican government has not published apprehension statistics, but a senior White House official said it had provided daily updates to the Trump administration, including specific apprehension numbers.
"They say they're going to stop them. Let's see. They have the power to stop them, they have the laws to stop them," Trump said earlier on Tuesday.