Trump's fear tactics won't make Central American migrants turn back

Trump's fear tactics won't make Central American migrants turn back
© Getty Images

After a month-long odyssey through Mexico by bus, train and on foot, small numbers of Central Americans are being allowed to enter the U.S. to apply for asylum. The San Diego Union reported that by Wednesday evening, 28 Central Americans — mostly women and children — had crossed the border at the San Ysidro port of entry.

Another 150 remained encamped directly in front of the border crossing. This is only a fraction of the estimated 1,500 people who joined the caravan in southern Mexico at the end of March.

ADVERTISEMENT

For weeks, Trump has been tweeting hyperbolically about the Central Americans, calling the caravan "dangerous" and a threat to national security, necessitating mobilization of the National Guard to the southern border.

 

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the caravan "a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system." Two days later, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen followed suit with her own statement: "Let me be clear: we will enforce the immigration laws as set forth by Congress." 

Both Sessions and Nielsen decried the "legal loopholes" preventing the government from securing the border and urged Congress to pass tougher immigration enforcement legislation.

The problem for Trump officials is that enforcing the law means allowing the Central Americans to enter the U.S. to petition for asylum through a "credible fear" hearing. And the "loopholes" the administration wants closed are legal protections granted by Congress and the courts against detaining children and separating families.

This year's migrant caravan, called the "viacrucis migrante," or the "migrant stations of the cross," is similar to organized treks through Mexico that have occurred since 2008 during the Easter season. A humanitarian group called Pueblo Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders) organizes the caravans to help protect Central American refugees and migrants as they make the perilous journey through Mexico, as well as to highlight their petitions for asylum.

The caravan this year was larger than expected because of an influx of people fleeing from Honduras, where security conditions have deteriorated and political persecution is on the upswing following last year's presidential elections tainted by fraud. 

The formal caravan largely dissolved when it reached Mexico City several weeks ago, with many migrants opting to stay in Mexico. Those who continued north toward the U.S. are the most vulnerable who have the best cases for asylum in the U.S., organizers say. 

This latter group of about 200 reached the Tijuana-San Diego border on April 29, where supporters greeted them on the Mexican side of the bi-national Friendship Park. Just as the Central Americans prepared to present themselves to the border to ask for asylum, Customs and Border Protection officials announced that its facilities were full and petitioners would have to wait. Women and children spread out on blankets in front of the door to the processing center, while others slept in tents nearby. 

Human rights groups assailed the processing delay. The delay is "a way of skirting the law," Laura Gault, an attorney with Human Rights First, told the San Diego Union Tribune. “They’re not really complying with the intent of the law, but not openly violating it." 

DHS officials say they are sending additional asylum officers and attorneys to the border checkpoint. 

There is little that Trump can do to stop the Central Americans from petitioning for asylum, even though few, in the end, are likely to receive it. Border officials have wide latitude to determine what constitutes "credible fear" in an initial asylum interview, as do immigration judges in an asylum hearing, which is the last step of a lengthy vetting process. Some of the Central American petitioners may be released on humanitarian parole; others are likely to be held in detention pending resolution of their asylum claims. Still others may be deported right away. 

A powerful tool the Trump administration wields, however, is its ability to stoke fear and animate public opinion in favor of its nativist policies. On April 30, the Department of Justice issued a press release describing the arrest and criminal prosecution of 11 people picked up crossing the border without authorization a few miles west of the San Ysidro checkpoint.

Normally, this run-of-the-mill event would receive little or no media attention, but DOJ officials linked the group to the migrant caravan, a charge denied by organizers, who accused DOJ of attempting to "criminalize" the Central American refugees. 

On May 1, the editorial board of the Washington Post called the rhetoric around the migrant caravan a "distraction," noting that, despite a recent increase in apprehensions along the southern border, these numbers remain at less than half of what they were a decade ago. 

Yet, the anti-immigrant rhetoric deployed by the Trump administration against Central Americans is more than just a distraction; it is a weapon, a "soft-power" component to the broader militarization of the border. 

Psychological operations, or "psy-ops," are defined by the Department of Defense as planned operations intended to influence "emotions, motives...and ultimately the behavior of governments, organizations, groups, and individuals." Psy-ops involve the creation and dissemination of a particular message, for example, the calibrated leaks from DHS on plans to separate the children of detained border crossers and prosecute their parents, designed to create fear as a migration deterrence strategy.

The Trump administration is stoking fear and playing to its base by attempting to project itself as all-powerful in the effort to stem migration along the southern border. But the Central Americans sleeping in tents outside the border gates, and telling their plight to the world, are evidence that such fear mongering won't put an end to the migration dilemma.   

Elizabeth Oglesby is associate professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She is co-editor of “ The Guatemala Reader” and a Public Voices fellow with the Op Ed Project.