The World

Trump vs. the Caravan

The president is misleading voters about the migrant caravan and what Mexico is doing to stop it.

Honduran migrants heading in a caravan to the U.S.
Honduran migrants heading in a caravan to the U.S. walk in Metapa on their way to Tapachula, Mexico, on Oct. 22.
Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

Two weeks away from the midterms, Donald Trump’s nativist rhetoric has reached fever pitch. Perhaps encouraged by the knowledge that an astounding 75 percent of potential Republican voters consider illegal immigration to be a “very big” problem for the United States, Trump has quite literally bet the house on anti-immigrant fearmongering. His most recent boogeyman is the Central American caravan that has gathered thousands of potential refugees fleeing unspeakable violence, mostly from Honduras.

Trump has threatened to cut off aid to the region’s “northern triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador while praising Mexico for a series of punitive measures that delighted the president and various voices in conservative media. Apparently, though, it wasn’t enough for Trump, who on Monday morning berated Mexican “Police” for not doing enough to “stop” the caravan. The president then reached deep into the nativist bag of scares and implied the Central American group included “unknown Middle Easterners” and called the caravan a national emergency for the United States.

These tweets require detailed parsing.

Trump lies when he suggests Mexico hasn’t done enough to contain the present immigrant caravan or the steady influx of potential refugees slipping through the country’s southern border. In fact, outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration jumped on the punitive bandwagon years before Trump, focusing mostly on containment and deportation rather than granting due process to asylum-seekers. COMAR, Mexico’s agency for refugee protection, is grossly underfunded and understaffed, with an annual budget of just under $2 million, while the INM, the country’s equivalent to ICE, gets 80 times that.

It should come as no surprise. Since 2014, when Mexico unveiled a program called “Frontera Sur,” focusing on security, the country has deported more Central Americans than the United States. It has done so with an efficiency so cruel that it contravenes the country’s most basic commitment to due process and human rights. Amnesty International reports that “the Mexican government is routinely failing in its obligations under international law to protect those who are in need of international protection.” The organization found that 75 percent of asylum-seekers from Central America “were not informed of their right to seek asylum in Mexico”, while 69 percent said Mexican immigration officials never asked for the reason the potential asylee had left his or her country of origin. Amnesty International also found that almost 60 percent of the Mexican authorities’ interviews with Central American immigrants—again, people who are fleeing the fear of death—lasted less than 10 minutes.

For all practical purposes, then, Mexico anticipated and has now dutifully taken on the Trump administration’s punishing approach to immigration, falling in line with a strategy repeatedly laid out by Gen. John Kelly in his time at the Department of Homeland Security. The Mexican government’s recent display of force along the Guatemalan border, during which hundreds of federal police fought back immigrants with tear gas, is just the latest example. The heartbreaking pictures, which have made a mockery of Mexico’s commendable history as a safe harbor for refugees, were seen the world over.

Of course, none of this has placated Trump, whose interpretation of diplomacy is nothing short of complete acquiescence.

Trump also grossly exaggerates the caravan’s potential threat. The U.S. government’s own numbers have proven that the percentage of Central American migrants who make their way to America’s southern border and have confirmed ties to gangs like the MS-13 is actually minuscule. The vast majority of the current group is made up of families trying to escape what has now become an untenable situation in their countries of origin. It is no romantic flourish to say that they are not seeking a better life but merely trying to find a way to survive. Karla Zabludovsky, BuzzFeed’s Mexico bureau chief, told me the caravan’s migrants “want jobs—they want to feed their families.” American foreign correspondents currently following the caravan on the ground routinely file stories that detail the very specific misery the migrants flee from. Some are trying to get back to the lives they left behind after being deported. They are all part of a tragic humanitarian crisis with no easy answers, not a mob threatening the stability of the United States or Mexico.

Which bring us to Trump’s most brazen attempt at fearmongering: the idea that, “mixed in” among the Central American refugees, one could find “Middle Easterners” (with obvious implications). To suggest that the Central American refugee crisis is some sort of Trojan horse for terrorism is irresponsible and baseless. Zabludovsky, who has been following the caravan so painstakingly that President Trump himself retweeted one of her posts—“To see Trump twist the information I put out there to feed his venomous, politically motivated rhetoric was very upsetting,” she told me—said she found it “unlikely that there are people from the Middle East among the migrants.” According to her, “Most people are from Honduras. It’s a small place where people tend to know each other somehow. The migrants would have likely already singled out anyone foreign. They know it’s in their best interest for the caravan to be clean and stay out of trouble.” A Mexican government official told me, “There is currently no information to suggest that citizens of the Middle East have joined the caravan.” In any case, the source added, “Mexico and the United States have always worked together to reduce that specific risk.”

The migrant caravan has become the perfect example of the challenges facing American democracy and, frankly, the country’s moral mettle. In Trump’s binary, purely adversarial logic, the plight of thousands of desperate men, women, and children has become a political bounty to be exploited in times of electoral need. About 3 out of 4 Republican voters seem ready to take the nativist bait. For the rest of the country, though, facts should matter. It’s time to make a case for sanity.