President Trump is proving once again that he has little awareness of, or much appreciation for, the reasons so many Central American families continue to flow northward in search of a sanctuary. The latest flash point is yet another migrant caravan that set out a few days ago from Honduras.
Reportedly numbering about 2,000 people, the caravan has already crossed into Guatemala on its way to Mexico en route, for many of the migrants, to the United States. Such caravans, which have existed for years, are part publicity stunt by immigration advocates and part self-defense mechanism. The overland trip from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador is arduous and dangerous, so traveling in groups offers some protection from marauding gangs, rapists and others who prey on the desperate.
Rather than recognizing these caravans for what they are, the president sees them as an “assault on our country.” He went apoplectic in April when a caravan of about 1,200 Central American migrants moved through Mexico; government officials there dispersed most of the migrants and only about 150 reached the U.S. border. For comparison, so far this year, border agents have arrested an average of 42,651 migrants per month.
The United States cannot simply close its borders to people seeking asylum, which is what most of the caravan members ultimately are seeking.
The caravans are a drop in the immigration bucket and pose no significant risk to the United States. Nevertheless, they provided fodder this week for another presidential Twitter tantrum meant to rile up his nativist base — “Great Midterm issue for Republicans!” Trump tweeted, later referring to the migrants, absurdly, as “Democrat Party led.” He threatened to withhold aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador if those governments didn’t stop the exodus. He declared that “anybody” trying to cross the U.S. border will be arrested and detained. And on Thursday, he threatened to shut the entire border — he’d disrupt supply chains and halt trade with Mexico over this? — and secure it with U.S. military forces, which is likely illegal. (The Posse Comitatus Act bars the military from performing civilian law enforcement within the United States, although it can help the Border Patrol with surveillance and logistics.)
Mexico has already warned that only caravan members with proper documents, or those seeking asylum in Mexico, would be allowed into that country. So Trump appears to be flipping out over a relative handful of migrants moving on foot two countries away from a U.S. border that many of them are unlikely to reach. This is political theater, not a crisis.
Here’s the cold hard reality that Trump and his acolytes ignore: The United States cannot simply close its borders to people seeking asylum, which is what most of the caravan members ultimately are seeking. Laws and international agreements require the federal government to give such petitioners a chance to enter and make their cases. And beyond the government’s legal obligations, to deny asylum-seekers a fair hearing would be cruel and inhumane. Just because Trump doesn’t like something doesn’t mean he has the authority or right to unilaterally shut it down.
And threatening to withhold foreign aid to the Northern Triangle governments is foolishness. In recent years, the aid’s key purpose has been to stabilize the countries, shore up democratic institutions, and offer economic development to address the conditions that send the desperate fleeing north in the first place: violence and poverty. The way to handle caravans and unaccompanied minors and young families fleeing gang-infested neighborhoods is to beef up efforts to improve conditions in those countries, not slash them.
Granted, the number of families detained as they seek asylum jumped 80% last month over July, according to the Washington Post, reaching 16,658 family members in September. That reportedly has White House officials contemplating a new version of the family separation policy that was so disastrously implemented this summer. It’s a thorny issue that has bedeviled even competent administrations.
But the caravan is offering Trump a pretext to do something he was trying to do anyway. In his 2018 budget request, Trump sought to cut aid to Latin American countries 36% and redirect the money from governance and economic growth to security programs. Congress, fortunately, didn’t go along and limited the aid cut to 4.2%. But the administration’s approach — bullying and threatening while seeking to rein in assistance — runs contrary to U.S. interests and misconstrues the nature of illegal immigration today. New immigrants who are in the United States without authorization tend to be people from Asia who enter the country legally and then overstay their visas, not desperate border-crossers from Latin America. But the latter serve as a convenient bogeyman for Trump to rile up the xenophobes among his supporters. Do not be fooled by the man behind the tweets.