How to Handle the Caravans

Published October 26, 2018

National Review Online

A caravan of ragtag, would-be immigrants makes its way through the nations of Honduras (per capita income $4,630), El Salvador (per capita income $7,540), and Guatemala (per capita income $8,000) to Mexico.

The response in the U.S. (per capita income $60,200) — panic.

Hyperventilation is the mode we seem to bring to all challenges in 2018 America. We’ve seen caravans before. There was a 1,500-person caravan that marched north just this past April. Of the band, only 400 actually reached the border and requested asylum. On average, about 22 percent of asylum requests are granted.

Now, contrary to the tone of some left-leaning coverage, it is not inhumane to say that there is no “right” to enter the United States. We don’t have an open-door policy. We have laws and procedures. One of those is asylum.

The caravan coverage on the left is all about babies in strollers and desperate women seeking refuge from criminals. And those stories are heart-wrenching. What they rarely acknowledge is that many migrants, especially able-bodied young men, are simply seeking a better life. There’s nothing immoral about that (in their place, I would do the same), but neither do you get priority in immigration just because you live in a miserable country nearby. To abolish ICE, as some on the left demand, would be the equivalent of throwing open the borders.

Further, only the hopelessly naïve would deny that advocates for immigrants do sometimes coach them. Our asylum law permits entry for those who have a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, sex, religion, or national origin. Would-be entrants are told how to phrase things: “You will be asked why you are coming to America. Don’t say ‘I want to work.’ You must say you are afraid to return home because of persecution.”

Clearly not all asylum requests are bogus or manufactured, but some are. Things are desperately bad in Honduras and other Central American nations (though not in Costa Rica — per capita income $16,100). Some frantic people really do need asylum. Would you repeal our asylum laws because some make unverifiable claims?

That brings us to the Right’s tone about the caravan. Congressman Matt Gaetz made the wild charge that the Hondurans were being paid by George Soros to make the trek and “storm the U.S. border.” President Trump has been sounding the klaxon. The caravan is an “assault on our country” that the “Democrats had something to do with” and contains “criminals” and “unknown Middle Easterners.” He threatened to cut aid to Central American nations, which the Heritage Foundation has cautioned against, since U.S. aid helps those nations fight drug traffickers and other criminals. The White House issued talking points describing the caravan — still 1,000 miles away — as a “crisis,” and the Pentagon has announced the deployment of 800 troops to the border. Really? Even if all those folks with strollers and roller bags could cover ten miles a day, it would still be 2019 before they reached the Rio Grande.

The Right is treating these migrants as an invading army. Photos are ricocheting around social media showing Mexican police bloodied by encounters with the caravan. The photos are fake. They’re from 2012, when Mexican police and student protesters got into an altercation. Another inciting photo shows two masked men burning an American flag on which a swastika has been painted. That photo is from an unrelated protest near the U.S. embassy and had nothing to do with the caravan.

There are an estimated 7,000 footsore marchers. Over the course of the next few weeks, it will dwindle. Many will seek asylum in Mexico. Others will turn back.

Though you’d never guess it from the tone of our politics, illegal immigration is at a 40-year low. Mexicans (per capita income $17,740) once accounted for 98 percent of illegal crossings. That has now dropped to 50 percent. Mexico is getting more prosperous, which, for many reasons including illegal immigration, is what we should want for all of Latin America. The total number of yearly illegal entries has declined from 1.5 million in 2000 to about 300,000 today. We might want to increase the number of immigration judges on the border, the better to process claims of asylum. But let’s keep our perspective. As the Weekly Standard’s Jim Swift reminds us, during its heyday at the turn of the 20th century, Ellis Island was admitting 5,000 immigrants per day.

A caravan of poor people marching north to signify their misery is not a national emergency. Our inability to keep our heads might be.

— Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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