Troops, Votes and Human Rights: The Politics of Immigration and Fear

 /  Jan. 4, 2019, 5:22 p.m.

Border Patrol

In an impromptu conversation with reporters on the evening of November 1, President Trump said, “As far as the caravan is concerned, our military is out. We have about 5,800. We'll go up to anywhere between ten thousand and fifteen thousand military personnel on top of Border Patrol, ICE and everybody else at the border."

The president also dispensed some unprompted guidance to the troops: should they face a horde of rock-throwing migrants, they should react as though the rocks were “rifles.” He later reversed and clarified his initial statement, “If our soldiers or Border Patrol or ICE are going to be hit in the face with rocks, we're going to arrest those people. That doesn't mean shoot them. But we're going to arrest those people quickly and for a long time."

The remarks, which reportedly caught Pentagon officials by surprise, incited a wave of both virulent opposition and unyielding support, mostly along party lines. This article will examine initial reactions to and implications of the president’s military response to the migrant caravan. By persistently exaggerating the threat posed by immigrants, President Trump does not intend to preserve and protect our national security; rather, he aims only to further his own political agenda.

Criticism of the mission, dubbed Operation Faithful Patriot, was swift and widespread. "This is not a national security issue ... we're seeing women, children and the elderly within this caravan fighting for their lives. We don't need more military there," said Bishop Garrison, the interim director of the Truman National Security Project, a left-leaning organization that focuses on national security and veterans’ issues. Formerly, he served in the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.

According to Pentagon estimates reported by the Washington Post, the total cost of Trump’s military deployments could exceed $200 million by the end of 2018—were the deployments to continue into next year, this number would grow significantly.

Estimates of the sizes of the three caravans approaching the US-Mexico border vary. According to Mexican and Salvadoran government officials, they are comprised of about eight thousand people. According to the New York Times, about eight hundred migrants in the caravan have arrived so far to the northern Mexican border city of Tijuana. Authorities in Tijuana expect between 1,500 and two thousand migrants to arrive by Thursday evening, with hundreds more joining through the rest of the week. However, questions arise as to whether this is the most appropriate usage of active-duty troops.

The president argues that the media underestimates the size and scope of the caravans. In a conversation with ABC News, he said, “You have caravans coming up that look a lot larger than it’s reported actually. I’m pretty good at estimating crowd size. And I’ll tell you they look a lot bigger than people would think.”

Many others leapt to the president’s defense. Senior military officials supported the deployment on the grounds of national security. A statement released by the Pentagon described the mission, which will "provide a range of assistance, including planning, engineering, transportation, logistics and medical support to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection."

Tom Spoehr, the director of the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation's Center for National Defense and a US Army veteran, concurred with the president’s sentiment. "The President and the administration wants to look like they are acting decisively ... they want to appear strong… The military is a quick way to respond to things in many cases.”  

Chris Cabrera, a border patrol agent and spokesperson for the National Border Patrol Council, is grateful for the president’s support. He maintains that agents including himself have needed help “for some time.” While the troops are not permitted to physically apprehend undocumented migrants, they will serve as additional monitors, observing movements and actions to assist Border Patrol.

Nevertheless, the deployment of fifteen thousand troops is no small task, easily surpassing the number of troops currently in Afghanistan. There are only three countries in which more than fifteen thousand US troops are currently deployed: Japan, Germany, and South Korea. This suggestion speaks volumes about the president’s agenda and administrative priorities. With fifteen thousand troops stationed at the border, there would be more individuals used to fend off a couple thousand migrants (a generous estimate) than currently aiding the millions of citizens in Puerto Rico.

It is the belief of many politicians and pundits, including some within the Republican Party, that Trump’s off-handed remark will not amount to concrete policy action. After all, it remains unlikely that the president will approve such a large-scale deployment, particularly with the recognition that six thousand troops are presently stationed there. Indeed, it is a possibility that the president utilized the concurrent media storm around deployments and migrant caravans to appeal to his base before the midterm elections.  

Yet, when asked if the comment was a political stunt, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis denied the allegation, stating, “The support that we provide to the secretary for Homeland Security is practical support based on the request from the commissioner of Customs and Border [Protection], so we don't do stunts in this department."

Despite Mattis’s defense of Trump’s statement, it appears that they may amount to little more than a political tactic. While the president’s hardline rhetoric is not popular nationwide (58 percent of Americans disapprove of how Trump has handled immigration), it resonates with his Republican base. Trump’s strongman message validates conservative fears of an “invasion” of immigrants, painting a picture of “lawless” foreigners entering the United States in droves, committing crime and stealing jobs. In essence, he is stoking racial animosity, escalating the hysteria surrounding the immigration debate to drive his base to the polls. This tactic is neither new nor ineffectual. Such remarks appeal to the increased anxiety among his supporters regarding the racial diversification of America and have consistently proven to energize their turnout.

Indeed, the country stands at a demographic inflection point. By 2020, the US Census Bureau predicts that non-whites will compose a majority of all children. By 2044, no one racial group will be a majority of the country. This fundamental change has uprooted the identities of both parties and initiated an important reckoning.

The results of the 2018 midterm elections provide some insight into how the centerpiece issue of immigration will be grappled with in future elections. Exit polls showed that 23 percent of voters cite immigration as the nation’s top challenge, second only to health care. The Democrats resoundingly regained control of the House of Representatives, while Republicans retained their majority in the Senate. Additional polls suggest that Trump’s hardline stance on immigration contributed to Republican losses in the House. 46 percent of voters said that Trump’s immigration policies were too tough; only 17 percent said they did not go far enough. While 39 percent of voters said that immigrants hurt the nation more than they help it, 59 percent believed the opposite, that immigrants help more than they hurt.

However, the president’s virulent rhetoric is not without consequence. On November 28, a peaceful protest at the Mexican border turned drastically violent. American border agents fired dozens of tear gas canisters into a crowd of migrants that included women and children. Repelled by American border guards, scores of migrants backtracked and were subsequently arrested by Mexican authorities. Trump and Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security, ardently defended the firing of the gas.

More than two thousand immigrants have filed appointments with US immigration officials to request asylum. However, President Trump continues to make this process exceedingly difficult. Wait times for asylum interviews now last for more than two months. Thus, immigrants are increasingly turning to acts of desperation. With the persistent hostile immigration rhetoric from the White House, some feel that their best course of action is to try and cross the border illegally—they feel they have little left to lose. Some leap into icy, rough ocean waters and attempt to swim around the fence into the United States. Others seek clandestine entry with the help of hired smugglers.

At the moment, many immigrants have received temporary visas to stay in Mexico while they await the results of their future. More than five thousand people are currently living in squalid conditions, clustered in dilapidated refugee camps in Tijuana.

Trump’s militant rhetoric will also impact congressional negotiations on the Dream Act, which protects immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children from deportation, as long as they meet certain criteria, and funding for the president’s proposed wall along the US-Mexico border. Trump said he would wait until after the November midterm elections to decide whether to shutdown the government, should the Democrats not allocate sufficient funding for his border wall. Before November, senators from both parties wanted to negotiate a reauthorization of DACA in exchange for funding the wall. Now, that appears unlikely, complicated by Trump’s unwillingness to negotiate and renewed Democratic control in the House of Representatives. Today, a stalemate over this contentious issue has ensued in Washington—unhelped by Trump’s virulent rhetoric.  

The situation provides a stark glimpse into the current state of American politics and the contentious debate swirling around the issue of immigration. What does this say about the American populace and our former reputation as the nation of Ellis Island, inviting immigrants from far and wide to better their lives? Only we, the American public, can answer these questions in 2020.

The image featured in this article is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law.

William Yee


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