They are women and children, workers in straw hats, a few elderly, carrying their scant belongings in knapsacks, walking hundreds of miles north through Mexico, away from the grinding poverty and horrific crime of their home country, Honduras — a caravan of refugees seeking protection from gangs who prey on their children, extort their meager earnings and will kill them if they report crimes they witness. The migrants' purpose is not to "invade" the United States as President Donald Trump seems to believe but to focus attention on their plight and that of the thousands of others left behind in Honduras. It is a largely symbolic journey that migrants have repeated every year since 2008. Yet President Trump has now used the caravan to justify deploying the National Guard at the southern border with Mexico. The move plays well with right-wing talk show hosts and provocateurs and the minority in his base who are anti-immigrant, but it is both unnecessary and belligerent at a time when illegal immigration is at its lowest point in nearly 50 years.
Apparently, after watching Fox News Channel reports on the flow of some 1,000 refugees trekking across Mexico, Trump began warning of Armageddon. "Getting more dangerous. 'Caravans' coming," he tweeted. It followed his meltdown on Easter Sunday morning when he displayed his Christian charity by notifying some 800,000 young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents when they were children that he would oppose any effort to give them legal status. "NO MORE DACA DEAL," the president tweeted, this after promising just a couple of months ago that he'd take the heat and sign any bipartisan bill to give legal status to recipients of Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Trump's military deployment at the border makes little sense. The southern border already has some 16,000 Border Patrol agents and 6,000 customs agents ensuring that few people cross illegally into the United States. These resources are supplemented by drones, some 12,000 sensors and 700 miles of physical barriers. There is no dramatic increase in the number of people immigrating to the U.S. illegally; indeed, the population of undocumented immigrants has remained stable for more than a decade, having fallen from its peak in 2007. The number of arrests of people trying to cross illegally has been declining for more than a decade and has now fallen to a 46-year low, with significant declines since Trump took office. Yet Trump stokes fear and anger to rile his base, ignoring reality and provoking tensions with an ally.
Trump's deployment differs from earlier temporary assignments of National Guard troops along the border, which occurred in both the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration. In those instances, the troops were deployed in response to specific crises. The Mexican government's crackdown on drug cartels in 2006 sparked violence along the Mexican side of the border that threatened to spill over into the U.S. In 2010, high-profile killings on the U.S. side of the border caused alarm. But Trump's rationale is different. He ordered the deployment in a fit of pique at his failure to secure funding to build his promised border wall. The refugee caravan is simply a colorful excuse for the president to engage in saber rattling.
Militarizing the border with Mexico will signal to an important ally that it is no longer our friend but a perceived enemy. Given our history with Mexico — which includes a U.S. invasion of the country, something Abraham Lincoln branded as "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced," and our taking of more than a third of its territory — Mexico may well view this as intolerable belligerence. Donald Trump seems to regard allies as enemies and enemies — for example, Russia — as friends. It is a dangerous gambit that undermines American security.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.