Trump’s Bet on the Border

Terry H. Schwadron

Nov. 6, 2018

In the days before today’s election, President Trump doubled down on a message of hating the prospects of an “invasion” of unwanted Central American immigrants who have formed an “illegal” caravan to walk north to ask for entry into the United States — a fully legal request.

Republicans made the message the lasting note in the election, but it deserves our attention because it reflects deeper values and emotions that we are having difficulty resolving. The questions for you and me: Do we have the policies we want as Americans? Is it effective, as well as humane? Does it lead to “safety” or is it unleashing unintended racial tension?

In other words, setting today’s election results aside, who are we as a country. Ultimately, that is the sort of question that should drive our elections. Instead, a mix of political money and misleading, negative advertising, personalities and misstatements of the dangers and threats have built this border security issue into a matter of fear and defensiveness.

On behalf of the nation, President Trump’s words and deeds are now coming alternately to frame a president obsessed with self and drama, for example, or one who is standing firm for an America for Americans first, pitting himself against illegal immigration, but attacking legal immigration levels and processes as well. We cannot even agree on what the words mean: “Caravan” either is a desperate attempt by parents to get away from violence and hunger or a manipulated invasion of illegals; legal “asylum” requests are alternatively a mask for illegal crossings or what it always has been — a request process that results in a few approved entries.

Trump is either showing grit or potentially misusing the military for political gain, he is speaking out where others are shy to stand up or politicking directly from the White House, in violation, at least, of traditional presidential behaviors, and promising to continue his campaign rallies well after the election.

In the end, despite his bravado, perhaps Trump’s policies are proving ineffective even towards the ends he says he wants. The numbers say that after a brief period of downward border crossings following his inauguration, in fact, we now have more crossings two years into the Trump era.

It has been way too easy for some candidates for Congress merely to repeat the presidential bias as if it is fact, allowing them to describe Democrats as favoring “open borders” in response. That Democrats have voted repeatedly for electronic surveillance rather than a wall, for increase in border forces, even if chiding the excesses of ICE, all are set aside. Democrats need to put forth a realistic position towards immigration policy.

We might remember that our country lacks any kind of cohesive policy towards its Central American neighbors other than that of a bully protecting his own turf. Thus, we are making no sustained attempt to stop caravans in their home country, by helping to eliminate the cause.

To buttress his often-false statistics from the border, the president has released an outwardly hostile, race-baiting television ad depicting immigrants as murders (that Fox News found too offensive to run), and asserted (before backing down) that the military being assigned to the border have the right to fire arms against rock-throwing among the hordes of illegal immigrants bearing down on America. By any definition, this is something that at least I find to be extreme. In other countries facing actual rock-throwing attacks, authorities have switched to non-lethal rubber bullets before ordering gunfire.

The president also threatened to rewrite the 14thamendment to the Constitution by executive order alone, and suspending all rules allowing for asylum requests, which, of course, are legal. Despite the obvious procedural objections even from Republicans, the president has redoubled his views that this is well within presidential power. Again, to me, at least, this seems way over the line of acceptability to believe that the president alone can do this.

Meanwhile gun-carrying civilian groups and border vigilantes reportedly are acting on the president’s words and are moving towards the southern border, vowing to form caravans of their own to trail American troops.

Apart from all else, The Washington Post estimates the cost for 2018 of border deployments at $200 million. The military has started laying barbed wire fencing beneath an international bridge across the Rio Grande.

Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, head of U.S. Northern Command, told the Military Timesthat the 5,239 active-duty troops or more — Trump said it could be up to 15,000 — have been given clear guidance on the use of force and there will be unit and individual training to make sure they know what they can and can’t do. Generally, U.S. troops are authorized to use force in self-defense, though the Pentagon is working to keep the problems at the border from careening out of control.

Just what that means in a non-combat confrontation between the walking wounded among the marchers — still 800 miles away and on foot — and armed soldiers is anything but clear. What is clear is that the commander-in-chief believes that he has made armed resistance to a column of insurgents possible.

In the New York Times, op-ed writer Paul Krugman argues that deploying the military is a made up response to a made-up problem.Trump “wasn’t exaggerating a problem, or placing the blame on the wrong people. He was inventing a problem that doesn’t exist, and using that imaginary problem to demonize brown people”

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey tweeted that “Our men and women in uniform are better trained, better equipped, and better led so they meet any threat with confidence. A wasteful deployment of over-stretched Soldiers and Marines would be made much worse if they use force disproportional to the threat they face. They won’t.”

The large troop deployment will be limited to performing similar support functions as the 2,000 National Guard troops whom Trump has already sent to the border. Members of the National Guard have flown surveillance flights along the border and repaired Border Patrol vehicles. In one case, a group of Border Patrol agents tracking drug smugglers in the remote Arizona desert in August called on a National Guard helicopter to keep an eye on the suspects and guide agents on the ground until they had them in custody. That operation resulted in several arrests and the seizure of 465 pounds of marijuana.

Pentagon officials deferred to the president about the decision to send active-duty troops given that they will be limited to performing the support functions the Guard already is doing.

Caravans of migrants from Central America are slowly winding north with one group getting into a violent confrontation with Mexican police at the border with Guatemala, throwing rocks. Trump appeared to refer to that conflict.

“They are throwing rocks viciously and violently. You saw that three days ago, really hurting the military,” he said. “We are not going to put up with that. If they want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back. I told them to consider it a rifle. When they throw rocks like they did at the Mexico military and police, I say consider it a rifle.”

He also said asylum seekers must go to ports of entry in order to make a claim. He promised an executive order sometime next week that would ban migrants from claiming asylum if they cross the border illegally, and would set up vast tent cities that would hold anyone coming over the border.

U.S. immigration laws say migrants seeking asylum can do so no matter how they arrive at the U.S. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, migrants claiming asylum are allowed to do so at the border crossings, but also if they cross illegally.

By the time this caravan breaks up, we can all wonder aloud as to why the president needed to cross so many lines of restraint. We should be stepping back to question whether all of this is solving the problem at hand.


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