President Trump’s words rarely reflect reality, especially when it comes to immigration. He uses grotesque and inhumane rhetoric to turn families who are fleeing horrific violence and poverty in Central America into a sinister fever dream.
Take the caravan of migrants currently traveling north from Honduras and Guatemala. Citing no evidence at all, Trump on Monday claimed there were “criminals and Middle Easterners” mixed into the group, in a blatant effort to stoke more xenophobia and fear.
In fact, the stream of roughly 7,000 people is made up mostly of ordinary men, women and children — part of a long tradition of families coming to the United States to make their lives better and in the process make our society richer.
An honest observer would find few meaningful differences between the migrants currently heading north and the newcomers who crossed the Atlantic between 1892 and 1954, when more than 12 million immigrants came to this country.
Trump’s entire characterization of the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border is misleading. It’s true that arrests at the border are at their highest levels since the president took office, and according to Homeland Security statistics published last week by the Washington Post, there has indeed been an 80% increase in arrests of families traveling with children since July.
But the total number of arrests along the border remains well below the historic peaks of two decades ago. So far in fiscal year 2018, U.S. Border Patrol agents have arrested 369,579 people along the border. This is up from the 303,916 arrests made in fiscal year 2017, but it’s down from the 408,870 arrests made in 2016 — and nowhere near the 1,643,679 arrests in 2000.
The rate of arrests at the border is less than a quarter of what it was at the turn of the century, in other words, even though the number of agents has doubled since then.
Even the migrant caravan, which appears so large and striking on TV and social media, and so menacing in Trump’s rhetoric, is really just a small huddled mass. Its roughly 7,000 people don’t amount to even 0.5% of the arrests made in 2000.
The disconnect between Trump’s distortions and the actual situation at the border is vast. At the same time, his words — and the actions of those in his administration — are shaping many lives in very tangible ways.
His administration’s policies send the National Guard to the border. His fearful rhetoric leads us to lean harder on Mexico to do the dirty work of enforcement. His hubris results in walls. And his callousness inflicts punishment and anguish through family separation, criminalization and mass detention.
The punishment may broaden, with Trump threatening on Monday to cut off or substantially reduce aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for failing to prevent the caravan from traveling north.
There is great irony to all this, of course. As the Trump administration issues threats and hardens the border, it makes mass tactics like caravans a more sensible choice for families fleeing the poverty and violence of life in Central America.
Such mass tactics, so perfectly primed for easy consumption across cable news shows and social media, feed the paranoia and fear of the president’s base and fuel more enforcement.
Trump, in turn, can use the images to augment his myth of an immigration crisis and mobilize more Republican voters to turn out for the midterm election, thereby strengthening his ability to manufacture a sense of emergency.
Although Trump’s portrayal of the situation is detached from what is actually going on, he is producing a new disturbing reality. The cycle is reinforcing and ultimately dehumanizing.
Americans are left with a stark choice. We can act on an interpretation of the actual facts, which show that there is no crisis. Or we can act on the fantasy that Trump and his angry throngs of xenophobes are looking to create.
I hope we will look back at our own history to affirm our values. The international border separating the U.S. and Mexico is the Ellis Island of our time. We can turn our backs on the huddled masses or we can live up to what we have long claimed this country stands for.