Thousands of people from three Central American countries — Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — are slowly making their way through Mexico towards the U.S. border. Most of them are seeking better economic conditions and opportunities; some say they are fleeing high levels of crime and violence and wish to apply for asylum. President Trump has, in recent weeks, made this a national issue and pledged to stop the migrants from entering the United States, even going so far as to deploy thousands of U.S. Army troops to the border. Why has the President taken such drastic action, and what are the implications of this?
Migrants have sought to enter the U.S. for decades. What is new about this particular surge of migrants is that they have formed a large ‘caravan’ of over 5,000 people, hoping to find safety in numbers. When travelling alone or in small groups, migrants often fall prey to drug cartels, human traffickers, and predatory people-smugglers.
The deployment of such a large number of troops within the United States is also without recent precedent. The last time something like this happened was the 1980s, when federal soldiers were used to combat the narcotics trade. But since then, Presidents have relied largely on local National Guard units. The mission is reportedly an extremely unpopular one both amongst the military high command in Washington — who deride it as ‘an expensive waste of time and resources’ — and the soldiers on the ground, who suffer from low morale due to being away from their families around the holidays to perform a mission in which, by and large, they do not believe. Currently there are about 6,000 soldiers at the border, far fewer than the 15,000 Trump originally wanted.
If deploying the Army to the border is an expensive waste of time — a job better done by local law enforcement, border control officers, and the National Guard — why did Trump order it? While some might put it down to sheer incompetence or bull-headed ignorance, I would argue that Trump is actually quite clever. Stopping unauthorised immigration was a cornerstone of the President’s campaign promises; few could forget his infamous pledge to build a massive wall along the southern border of the United States. In fact, immigration seems to excite Trump’s core supporters like no other issue, and therefore took on a special sense of urgency as the midterm elections grew closer and closer. By making the ‘caravan’ of migrants a major news story and by using emotive language and imagery, such as when he referred to it as an ‘invasion’ and claimed that gang members are mixed in with the refugees, or when he promoted a television ad widely regarded as racist, the President was attempting to create a sense of momentum around his party’s bid to retain control of key congressional seats.
In the end, the midterms came and went: the opposition Democrats took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years, while Trump’s own party increased its majority in the Senate, presenting a tepid victory for opponents of the President. Predictably, the caravan issue has melted away in the wake of the recent elections, providing further fuel for the argument that the entire story was something of a charade. In truth, there is little evidence to support the idea that the caravan is an ‘invasion’, or the claim that there are gang members amongst the migrants — an accusation which brings back memories of a 1942 incident in which the U.S. government turned away thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust over fears that there were hidden Nazi agents in their number. There is also, as had already been stated, little justification in the use of U.S. Army troops in this way.
The issue will probably remain in the background until — weeks from now — the caravan does finally reach the American border, at which point Trump has claimed they will be housed in large ‘tent cities’ while asylum applications are processed, and until the rest of them are deported back to their countries of origin. The entire incident has strained America’s relations with Mexico and Central America and sharply divided the American public. Meanwhile, the migrants march and the soldiers wait.
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