For five days now hundreds of Central Americans — children, women, and men, most of them from Honduras — have boldly crossed immigration checkpoints, military bases, and police in a desperate, sometimes chaotic march toward the United States. Despite their being in Mexico without authorization, no one has made any effort to stop them.
Organized by a group of volunteers called Pueblos Sin Fronteras, or People Without Borders, the caravan is intended to help migrants safely reach the United States, bypassing not only authorities who would seek to deport them, but gangs and cartels who are known to assault vulnerable migrants.
Organizers like Rodrigo Abeja hope that the sheer size of the crowd will give immigration authorities and criminals pause before trying to stop them.
“If we all protect each other we’ll get through this together,” Abeja yelled through a loudspeaker on the morning they left Tapachula, on Mexico’s border with Guatemala, for the nearly monthlong trek.
When they get to the US, they hope American authorities will grant them asylum or, for some, be absent when they attempt to cross the border illegally. More likely is that it will set up an enormous challenge to the Trump administration’s immigration policies and its ability to deal with an organized group of migrants numbering in the hundreds.
The number of people who showed up to travel with the caravan caught organizers by surprise, and has overwhelmed the various towns they’ve stopped in to spend the night. Pueblos Sin Fronteras counted about 1,200 people on the first day.
This is close to the plot of the notorious 1973 dystopian French novel The Camp of the Saints. In that novel, a mass exodus of migrants from India land their ragtag flotilla in the south of France, and all but dare the French to resist letting them in. The novel — which is undeniably racist in parts — is mostly a pitch-black satire on French elites — in government, the academy, media, the church, etc. — falling all over themselves to prove their humanitarianism by welcoming the invasion. I read the book in 2015, and wrote a post about it titled “Good Lessons From A Bad Book.” I caught some flak on Twitter earlier today simply by noting the similarity between this real-life story and the plot of the novel. Apparently even noticing things like this is considered by some on the left as prima facie evidence of bigotry.
Still, there it is, even though the thousand-strong migrant throng headed north from Central America is scarcely like the hundreds of thousands sailing from India to France in the novel. The comparison is useful in providing an imaginative framework for the kind of reactions we might see on this side of the border (though it should be understood that the scenario in Camp Of The Saints is an apocalyptic one, with all the attendant end-of-the-world hysteria that makes for vivid fiction.) With the novel’s plot in mind, what will be worth watching, though, is how US elites behave if these particular migrants make it to the border.
There’s no doubt about what Donald Trump will do, obviously. A standoff at the border would be propaganda gold for him. Watch, though, how other elites in American society react. Who will be for letting the migrants in, who will be against, and who will keep their mouths shut? In the novel, the Indian migrants set sail for Europe because they were tired of living in poverty and misery. This is why the Central American migrants are headed for America, or so they told the Buzzfeed reporter:
Sweating after miles of walking in more than 90-degree heat with her two kids, Karen said conditions in Honduras were so bad she decided to take a chance with the caravan. She declined to give her full name.
“The crime rate is horrible, you can’t live there,” Karen told BuzzFeed News on the side of a highway near Huixtla, a town in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. “After the president [was sworn in] it got worse. There were deaths, mobs, robbed homes, adults and kids were beaten up.”
That’s horrible, obviously. If the throng gets closer, watch for lots of news stories about this aspect — and for stories making people in the US opposed to the open border look bad. The most interesting figures to watch will be Democratic politicians. As we all know, the Republicans are expected to take a massive hit in Congressional elections this November. A showdown at the border with Donald Trump is exactly the kind of media spectacle that could rally voters to the GOP. Washington Democrats had better hope those migrants — who, note well, aren’t war refugees — don’t get anywhere near the US border. You have to turn to apocalyptic, racially charged fiction to find a symbol as culturally and politically potent as that one.
Except this is real life.
UPDATE: This story — the migrant mass moving north — is the political equivalent of a tropical depression spotted far out into the Atlantic, one that is not much now, but once it hits warm water, could become a dangerous hurricane. Don’t believe me? Check out Tom Edsall’s must-read piece on how new statistical analysis shows that 2016 exit polling was wrong, and the white working class is actually more important to the Democrats than previously thought. Excerpts:
[Ruy] Teixeira of the Center for American Politics and William Galston of The Brookings Institution, two longtime Democratic strategists, suggest different but complementary directions in which to take the Democratic Party going forward.
Galston, writing in the March 16 Wall Street Journal, argues that Democrats need to moderate their stand on immigration in order to win over white noncollege voters.
“No issue has done more than immigration to feed populism, and finding a sustainable compromise would drain much of the bile from today’s politics,” Galston writes. He continues:
Defenders of liberal democracy should acknowledge that controlling borders is a legitimate exercise of sovereignty, and that the appropriate number and type of immigrants is a legitimate subject for debate. Denouncing citizens concerned about immigration as bigots ameliorates neither the substance nor the politics of the problem. There’s nothing illiberal about the view that too many immigrants stress a country’s capacity to absorb them, so that a reduction or even a pause may be in order.
Teixeira points out that if Clinton had done as well with white working-class voters as Obama
she would have carried, with robust margins, the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, as well as Florida and Ohio. In fact, if Clinton could simply have reduced the shift toward Donald Trump among these voters by one-quarter, she would have won.
In Alabama’s special Senate election, Doug Jones, the winning Democrat, would have lost if he had not made substantial inroads with the white working class, Teixeira argued:
Without the hefty swing among the white non-college population, particularly women, there is no way Jones would have won the state, or even come close.
There is no way around it — if Democrats hope to be competitive in Ohio and similar states in 2020, they must do the hard thing: find a way to reach hearts and minds among white non-college voters.
Here is another Bill Galston quote from Edsall’s piece:
This brings us to the issue of immigration. By a margin of 52 to 35 percent, college-educated whites affirm that today’s immigrants strengthen our country through their talent and hard work. Conversely, 61 percent of white working-class voters say that immigrants weaken us by taking jobs, housing, and health care. Seventy-one percent of working-class whites think that immigrants mostly hurt the economy by driving down wages, a belief endorsed by only 44 percent of college-educated whites. Fifty-nine percent of working-class whites believe that we should make a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries; only 33 percent of college-educated whites agree. Fifty-five percent of working-class whites think we should build a wall along our border with Mexico, while 61 percent of whites with BAs or more think we should not. Majorities of working-class whites believe that we should make the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States illegal and temporarily ban the entrance of non-American Muslims into our country; about two-thirds of college-educated whites oppose each of these proposals.
One more Galston quote:
The most plausible interpretation is that working-class whites are experiencing a pervasive sense of vulnerability. On every front — economic, cultural, personal security — they feel threatened and beleaguered. They seek protection against all the forces they perceive as hostile to their cherished way of life — foreign people, foreign goods, foreign ideas, aided and abetted by a government they no longer believe cares about them. Perhaps this is why fully 60 percent of them are willing to endorse a proposition that in previous periods would be viewed as extreme: the country has gotten so far off track that we need a leader who is prepared to break some rules if that is what it takes to set things right.
That migrant mass headed north through Mexico could well be a perfect political storm for the Democrats, who can’t afford to lose the Roseanne vote this fall.
UPDATE.2: Did I not tell you?
Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release. Getting more dangerous. “Caravans” coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 1, 2018
And look, what I personally think should be done with the migrants who approach the border does not matter to this analysis. If I’m right about the politics of this phenomenon, then I’m right no matter what my prescriptive views are. If I’m wrong, same thing. Spare me your criticism of the state of my soul. I’m not interested, and I won’t post it.
UPDATE.3: More presidential posting on Easter Sunday morning:
Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING, at stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their Southern Border, and then into the U.S. They laugh at our dumb immigration laws. They must stop the big drug and people flows, or I will stop their cash cow, NAFTA. NEED WALL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 1, 2018
These big flows of people are all trying to take advantage of DACA. They want in on the act!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 1, 2018
Again and again: you can complain all you want about how horrible Donald Trump is, and you might well be right. He’s going to demagogue this issue to death. And you can point out — accurately! — that the size of the migrant flow is minuscule compared to the fictional Camp Of The Saints, but you will miss the extremely potent political symbolism of the phenomenon. Whatever else Donald Trump fails to do, he does not fail to do that. You can blame Trump for exploiting the issue, but you have to recognize that there is a real issue there for him to exploit. So many on the left act like even to notice that uncontrolled migration is a problem is tantamount to racism and demagoguery. They keep making this mistake.
What’s more, as a reader points out in the comments thread, one big problem with the left’s response is the lack of a limiting principle. If we are not to have open borders, then at what point do we say to this or that migrant, “No, you can’t come in”? Let’s take for granted that the situation in Honduras is nightmarish. Very many people in Central America live in poverty and danger. One solution is to open the US border. If we don’t do that, under what terms will we let these migrants in?
One big difference between the Camp of the Saints and the current situation in our country is that the anti-immigrant side is loud and vocal, and holds the White House. In the novel, the entire French establishment is liberal humanitarian, and sees welcoming the migratory masses as an opportunity to demonstrate their own virtue — even though it means the end of their civilization. No, our civilization won’t end (these migrants are part of Western civilization, for one), but if you’ve read the novel, you will recognize the highly emotional arguments bruited about in the public square, about how saying no to migrants is intolerably cruel.