A century ago, a large mob of Mexicans invaded the United States. Led by Francisco “Pancho” Villa, a general in Mexico’s Revolutionary War, a contingent of perhaps 600 men entered U.S. territory on March 9, 1916, and attacked the border town of Columbus, N.M., killing about 16 Americans. Villa planned the assault as both retaliation for the Wilson administration’s support of Venustiano Carranza, his bitter rival, and as a personal vendetta against Sam Ravel, a local man who had swindled money from Villa. The assault remains the only such raid on the continental United States during peacetime in the country’s history. Wilson responded by summoning Army Gen. John J. Pershing, who assembled a force of 6,000 troops to hunt Villa deep inside Mexico’s northern territory. Pershing’s “punitive expedition” would return in early 1917, without the man they were pursuing.
A hundred years later, history has repeated itself, or at least half of the equation has. The United States will again amass close to 6,000 armed forces along the border with Mexico to prevent what President Trump has dramatically labeled a “national emergency.” (By Wednesday evening, Trump was threatening to send 10,000 to 15,000 troops — more than the United States has in Afghanistan.)
In this case, however, the so-called threat couldn’t be more different.
Villa’s forces were a ragtag bunch of revolutionaries, but they entered American territory heavily armed and with the clear intention of causing harm. They indeed carried out an invasion. The danger they posed was real.
In 2018, Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are preparing the country for the opposite, an “invasion” that is wholly imaginary, a threat that does not exist. This time, the group approaching the country’s southern border is not a gang of pistol-wielding outlaws led by a violent leader but a caravan of Central American migrants who, by the time they arrive at the newly militarized border, will have traveled over 2,000 miles, much of that on foot with the intention only of seeking refuge from violence, torture and poverty at home. They will be unarmed. Many will be families. Hundreds will be children. Some will be children carrying children.
Trump’s overreaction would be farcical if it weren’t tragic.
But the point of his order isn’t really to secure the border, which doesn’t need securing against the caravan. The same thing goes for his musings about ending birthright citizenship, which he can’t do unilaterally and which, at any rate, doesn’t pose a threat to the United States. Trump is making policy not to solve problems but to try to send a message that the problems not only exist but also represent an almost existential threat to the United States — to scare voters into buying into his hateful rhetoric targeting immigrants and convince them that only Trump, and only a harsh crackdown, can protect them from the fears he stirs up.
Despite the president’s panic, there is no evidence to suggest the existence of potential terrorists of Middle Eastern descent cleverly hidden among the thousands of desperate families making their way through Mexico. There is no information either of an increased presence of gang members from the much-feared MS-13 or any other criminal organization of the sort. As a matter of fact, the government’s own numbers suggest that the percentage of migrants from Central America’s northern triangle apprehended at the border with verifiable ties to gangs is minuscule. The same could be said of the caravan’s supposed plans to storm America’s southern border — Trump’s infamous “invasion.” That is physically impossible. And most members of previous groups that have made the trek through Mexico with the intention of formally requesting asylum in the United States simply showed up at border crossings and told guards they feared for their lives at home, as required by law. They did not enter the country en masse, illegally, as Trump would have the American public believe.
By responding to the migrant caravan with the same vast display of military muscle that Wilson used to counter “Pancho” Villa’s very real raid on Columbus more than a century ago, Trump is perpetuating both a myth and a dangerous narrative. The idea that the United States is under siege from a barbarian horde from the south is inaccurate and profoundly irresponsible. An honest response to Central America’s humanitarian crisis would begin by acknowledging the reality of those who are fleeing an impossible situation. The semiotics of such an overwhelming show of force along the southern border will only fuel nativist anxieties and polarization: Nowadays, after all, if it looks like an invasion, it must be an invasion.
With one week before the midterms, this might be politically expedient for Trump and the Republican Party — both seem to count on the power of fear as an electoral catalyst. But political convenience should be no match for moral clarity.