President Donald Trump has spent part of the last three days issuing blustery tweets over an annual caravan of mostly Central American migrants moving northward through Mexico, many of them heading for the U.S. border. The caravan, which dates back a decade, was designed to create something of a herd approach to safety — traveling in large numbers makes it harder for criminal predators and immigration enforcers to act. But it also was conceived by the organizers, Pueblo sin Fronteras (People Without Borders) to draw attention to the plight of people fleeing violence in places such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Now President Trump has helped make their protest for them by drawing global attention to what otherwise likely would have been a minor story, while incoherently savaging Mexico and Honduras (where most of the caravan marchers reportedly are from), threatening aid programs and, again, vowing to end the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“The big Caravan of People from Honduras, now coming across Mexico and heading to our ‘Weak Laws’ Border, had better be stopped before it gets there,” Trump posted Tuesday morning. “Cash cow NAFTA is in play, as is foreign aid to Honduras and the countries that allow this to happen.”
Had the president paused to think about the ramifications of reducing aid to Honduras, he might have realized that it would only serve to further destabilize the country, adding more impetus for people to flee. Meanwhile, the Mexican government appears to have intercepted the main part of the caravan, turning some members around and discussing humanitarian visas for others.
Mexico has stepped up its efforts in recent years to slow the flow of migrants across its country. During the humanitarian crisis that began in 2014 of unaccompanied minors traversing Mexico from Central America to seek asylum in the United States, President Obama sent trainers and equipment to help Mexico beef up enforcement at its southern border with Guatemala. Last year alone Mexico stopped 82,000 Central Americans from moving north, and from October 2014 to May 2015, Mexico detained more Central Americans than the U.S. Border Patrol caught crossing in from Mexico.
Trump’s string of hyperbolic tweets about the caravan fits the president’s pattern of recklessly disregarding the truth to score political points. Here, his goal seems to be to turn a larger-than-usual, but utterly manageable, protest into an unprecedented border crisis. Witness his comment at the White House on Monday about possibly sending troops to the southern border, as if we were about to be overrun by Mongol invaders.
The number of migrants may seem large — estimates of the size of the caravan have run from 1,200 to 1,500 people — but many of its members say they intend to seek asylum in Mexico. In fact, by Tuesday morning, the group was already starting to splinter. And even the original number is no more than what border agents might see coming into the United States on a typical day. The Border Patrol reported detaining nearly 37,000 people just in February along the Southwest border. Adding a few hundred more people seeking asylum is hardly a flood.
Ultimately, Trump’s tirade amounts to little more than a bit of showboating for his nativist loyalists and an attempt to divert the rest of the public’s attention from the latest ration of scandals and missteps, from the ongoing Mueller investigation to the costly tariffs China just imposed on U.S. pork, fruit and other exports in retaliation for Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. But the president’s bluster won’t get him anywhere on immigration reform. Trump announced the death of the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program (prematurely; it continues while a legal challenge proceeds) and again blamed the Democrats in Congress, even though he rejected serious legislative proposals to grant relief to immigrants who have lived here without permission after arriving as children.
Immigration is vital to the country’s future, but the system has been dysfunctional for years, leaving some 11 million immigrants living and working in the shadows. It’s a thorny issue freighted with ethnic and class politics, one that will take a knowledgeable and savvy leader trusted by the left and the right to fix. Here’s hoping such a person runs for president in 2020, because such leadership clearly is beyond Trump’s skill set.
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