Consider President Trump’s rhetoric about immigration from Mexico generally and about the caravan of migrants (that has at long last arrived at the border) specifically.
For all of his wan insistence that he objects only to illegal immigration, it’s worth remembering that the launch of his campaign in 2015 included a focus on immigration from Mexico. In Trump’s framing at that point, immigrants coming into the country across the southern border brought crime and drugs. Some, he added after the fact, may be good people. In the wake of that speech, he repeatedly defended his linking immigrants with crime, a link that’s unfounded.
And this week, during a political rally in Mississippi, he tried yet again to establish that connection.
"Democrats have become the party of caravans and crime,” Trump said. “Because when you have open borders, you have crime. When you have sanctuary cities, you have crime. Republicans are committed to halting this incursion and defending the sovereign territory of the United States."
He went on to articulate how many pounds of narcotics had been seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and how many immigrants accused of crimes had been deported.
The response Trump offers for these terrors is straightforward. Build a wall on the border. Deploy the military as needed (at least in the weeks before an election). Prevent people from seeking asylum if they cross the border illegally.
The recent tension near Tijuana following the arrival of the migrant caravan, though, makes clear that none of those proposed solutions is actually a solution — at least in this case.
The migrants arrived at a place where there’s already a wall. After having departed from Honduras in early October, the caravan of migrants had a choice of where it would go. The closest destination was Brownsville, Tex., the southernmost point in that state. From the point at which the caravan crossed the border into Mexico, Brownsville was only 1,100 miles away — less than half the distance as Tijuana, which was more than 2,600 miles away.
Why? In part because the journey to Tijuana is safer. A primary reason that migrants are making the trip is for personal safety; the caravan itself affords a measure of safety to participants that is missing when individuals make the journey.
The result, though, is that the migrants headed to a place where a wall already exists. Even Trump acknowledged this, tweeting a photo last week showing how the wall had been bolstered in anticipation of the migrants' arrival.
No wall will ever be free of points of entry. In the incident over the weekend where migrants were tear-gassed, Border Patrol agents were responding to a push from a group of migrants that attempted to climb fences or run through lanes of traffic at the San Ysidro port of entry. Some apparently also tried to enter through gaps in fencing, where they were apprehended.
San Ysidro is one of the busiest border crossings in the world, with tens of thousands of vehicles and people moving through daily. Some of that traffic is tourism; much of it is commercial. Some of it, too, is illegal: Most of the illegal drugs that enter the country flow through border checkpoints.
Trump would often say on the campaign trail that his border wall would include a “big beautiful door” through which people could legally immigrate. While the president has threatened to close the border entirely, that’s not practical, given how much traffic (and, indirectly, money) crosses it each day. There will always be places such as San Ysidro where there is no wall and where people can cross the border.
The vast majority of the migrants are waiting to apply for asylum at the port of entry. Most of the migrants seeking asylum in the United States are waiting in Tijuana to cross into the United States at the port of entry. Once on U.S. soil, they can apply for asylum. That process takes an extended period of time, and many of those who apply will not be granted the right to stay in the United States. But there’s nothing illegal about a migrant entering at a port of entry and claiming asylum.
The Trump administration issued an executive order this month requiring that those seeking asylum enter at ports of entry to make such claims. This was apparently an effort to dissuade a not-uncommon practice among migrants of crossing the border at any point and then turning themselves in to a Border Patrol agent to claim asylum.
A judge blocked the administration’s order, but in the case of the migrants that participated in the caravan, it’s largely unnecessary. The administration wants asylum seekers to appear at ports of entry, and they are.
Of course, this means that the government can close the port of entry (as it did with San Ysidro over the weekend) or limit the number of people allowed in on a daily basis, as it has elsewhere. But the caravan of migrants has, for now, respected Trump’s demand that they follow proper procedure.
The role of the military has been limited. The incident over the weekend was apparently handled by CBP, which closed the border crossing and fired the tear gas. Images from the scene showed members of the military on scene, but CBP took credit on Twitter for managing the situation.
On Facebook, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen credited the military with having “likely prevented injuries to personnel and migrants or additional damage to property” — though it was framed in the context of praise for Trump’s decision to deploy the troops. Trump has reportedly been considering firing Nielsen in recent weeks.
Nielsen’s post also notes that most of those seeking asylum won’t have it granted. It’s true that many of those seeking asylum may end up being released into the United States while awaiting their hearings — which could take years — and that some won’t attend hearings related to their applications. (Trump, we’ll note, regularly inflates the number of people who skip these hearings.)
This week, The Washington Post reported on an effort to address the concern that migrants might access the United States by exploiting the asylum-seeking process. Under a tentative deal, those seeking asylum in the United States would remain in Mexico until their claims were processed.
After The Post’s report, the Mexican government denied any such agreement.