A large group of mostly Honduran refugees, reportedly numbering into the thousands, has crossed into Guatemala in a caravan that is believed headed to the U.S. border.
Hundreds of migrants have arrived at the Guatemalan border town of Tecún Umán, along the southern border of Mexico, James Fredrick reports for NPR. Organizers of the caravan say they are waiting for thousands more to join them in the coming days, before attempting to cross the Mexican border.
The migrants say they are fleeing gangs and poverty. At first glance, it seems like the migrant caravan is a boon to Republicans ahead of the November election. Anger over uncontrolled immigration has been key to Donald Trump’s appeal. It turns out, though, that the situation actually reveals the limits of the president’s powers to control the southern US border. From the Washington Post:
Even as President Trump continues to consider immigration to be a political winner next month in helping turn out his conservative base for the midterm elections, tensions in the West Wing have reached a boiling point. A profane shouting match over immigration this week among top aides prompted Chief of Staff John F. Kelly to storm out of the White House and marked the culmination of weeks of mounting anxiety, several senior administration officials said.
Trump’s own escalating frustration has led him to excoriate aides for not taking more aggressive actions and to offer his own ideas, officials said. He has ruminated this week over the possibility of sending more soldiers to the border, even though thousands of National Guard troops have been deployed there since April with no evidence of a deterrent effect.
The Post reports that Trump is learning what his predecessor did: that the problem is extremely difficult to solve. More:
Trump is pushing for a more muscular response, and he favors sending more U.S. soldiers to the border. About 1,600 National Guard troops are deployed in four states after Trump ordered the move in the spring, according to Homeland Security officials.
But DHS officials say they need more legal and legislative firepower. The vast majority of Central American migrants who reach the border are turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents, claiming a fear of return and a desire to seek asylum. More National Guard troops and the border wall that Trump has proposed would be largely irrelevant, experts have said.
By Friday afternoon, video clips showed the Honduran migrants, having made their way through Guatemala, attempting to cross into Mexico, some wading through a river.
Back in Washington, one senior DHS official put the scene into perspective.
“We see the equivalent of a caravan cross our border every day,” the official said. “We’re catching 1,500 people a day.”
That’s incredible. Fifteen hundred a day!
Since I started this post over the weekend, the migrant horde has grown. From the WaPo:
The caravan of migrants from Central America grew to roughly 5,000 Sunday, a massive group that stretched along this city’s main highway for more than a half-mile.
They spoke in different accents, fleeing different disasters: joblessness in parts of Honduras, a mounting political crisis in Nicaragua, cities in Guatemala where they were sure their children would languish as they had.
And then there were the deportees. Many of the migrants here had previously lived in the United States, for years or even decades, joining the caravan to reunite with their children, or to resume old jobs. They were undeterred by the American authorities who had apprehended them or the U.S. president who promised to keep them out again.
Some of them had returned voluntarily to their home countries long ago, but eventually determined that there was nothing there for them. Now, they were traversing Mexico while President Trump tweeted about their journey, demanding that the migrants apply for asylum in Mexico before continuing north, threatening to close the U.S. border as Mexican authorities appeared to allow the caravan to proceed.
“It’s time for me to go back to the United States. It’s a country where I can live my life, unlike Guatemala,” said Job Reyes, 36, who had spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Los Angeles, attending kindergarten through high school there.
Last week, a PBS NewsHour correspondent reported from Morocco, which has become the latest place from which sub-Saharan African migrants try to launch themselves into Europe. Here’s an exchange he had with one of them:
Question: Are you afraid of the sea?
Man: No, I’m not frightened of the sea. I have no hope in this country. It’s death or a new life. That’s it.
How does a country that does not want itself invaded meet that kind of force — that is, the determination to succeed or die trying?
The reporter added this at the end:
Nations may place obstacles in their way, but dreamers believe any barrier is surmountable.
“Dreamers.” Such media framing! These people are potential invaders. But the media sentimentalize them. To be clear, the media should not demonize them, but neither should it sentimentalize them. That it frames the story in those terms is very Camp Of The Saints.
Why is the Central American caravan a Camp of the Saints problem? That’s the title of an extremely controversial 1973 French novel set in a racial dystopia. It is a frankly racist book, but one based on a highly relevant question. Its author, Jean Raspail, once explained how he got the idea for it. From Wikipedia:
Raspail has said his inspiration came while at the French Riviera in 1971, as he was looking out at the Mediterranean.
What if they were to come? I did not know who “they” were, but it seemed inevitable to me that the numberless disinherited people of the South would, like a tidal wave, set sail one day for this opulent shore, our fortunate country’s wide-gaping frontier.
In the book, a massive flotilla carrying vast throngs of migrants from India makes its way to France. Most of the narrative is taken up with France’s preparation for their landing on the southern coast. Raspail’s is a slashing satire of French elites — governmental, media, academic, religious — who have lost faith in their own civilization, and who are prepared to surrender their country to the
dreamers unarmed invaders, out of humanitarian motives.
The novel’s racism is offensive and deeply off-putting. This makes it difficult to appreciate what this extremely dark novel gets right.
Raspail — a Frenchman writing about Europeans — foresees a Europe that is no longer morally capable of doing what it takes to defend itself. In fact, the book draws the same conclusion about the West in general. Raspail understands Western civilization to be something of, by, and for white people, though he creates a sympathetic character who was born in India, but who has adopted Western culture and wishes to defend it against invaders from back home.
What the book asks us today is: How far would we go to defend the sovereignty of our nations from invaders who want to cross our borders not with weapons to conquer, but nevertheless to settle here? If 5,000 armed guerrillas tried to cross the US-Mexico border, there’s no question how the government would respond. But if 5,000 migrants, including women and children, tried to do this, what then? Would a US president ever order troops to open fire — and if so, under what circumstances? When, if ever, would lethal force be morally justified against unarmed invaders?
To open fire on unarmed people trying to cross the border would be a moral horror. Surely there are many non-lethal ways to stop this, though it’s interesting to note that the Trump administration can’t seem to get a handle on the problem.
Seems to me that Europe faces a vastly more difficult challenge, for several reasons:
- Europe’s southern borders are much harder to defend;
- Europe’s unwanted migrants come from the Middle East and, especially, from Africa, which will be a source of seemingly endless migrants for a long time to come;
- Europe’s migrants are from non-Western cultures (versus Latin Americans, who are Western and Christian)
So: at what point will a European navy open fire on a boat carrying migrants? If that happens, how will the European public react? If that action is unthinkable, doesn’t that give a tremendous advantage to migrants?
The raw logic of Raspail’s novel says that the only way to defend Western civilization from these invaders is to be willing to shed their blood. In the novel, only a few Westerners are willing to do that, and they fail. The rest collapse, spiritually and morally exhausted.
The book is a kind of alt-right pornography, and I found it frequently repulsive to read. Yet looking at that migrant caravan heading north, that “numberless disinherited people of the South” who like a tidal wave, are marching north toward our fortunate country’s wide-gaping frontier — it’s impossible not to think about Raspail’s ugly prophetic work.
How far, ultimately, are the United States and Europe willing to go to control their own borders in the face of people who believe they have nothing to lose by trying to cross the frontier? And: at what point do most of us cease to believe that we have anything worth defending — and a majority of us come to believe that those numberless disinherited people from the South are “a kind of solution” to our terminal malaise?
(I would like the discussion in the comments boxes to focus on the questions in the previous paragraph, and not on random pro- or anti-Trump potshot-taking. These are deep existential questions that Europe and the United States are facing now, and will continue to face this century — Europe far more than the US.)