Politics & Policy

The Nonexistent Border Crisis

Central American migrants take part in a march along a street in the city as they take a pause from traveling in their caravan, in Matias Romero, Mexico April 3, 2018. (Henry Romero/Reuters)
Trump steps on his own achievement in cutting illegal immigration, while liberals panic about the possibility of using the National Guard.

Having a president who watches cable news may have its advantages in terms of his being in touch with the zeitgeist. But the lesson for President Donald Trump this week is that not every upsetting thing that you see on Fox News is a national crisis or even something that will help you politically. On the other hand, the lesson for liberals that they seem equally unwilling to learn is that not every Trump call to action, apparently as the result of something he saw on TV, should be treated as a threat to the republic.

The midweek Trump outrage du jour concerned the president’s Twitter tantrum about the possibility of caravans of illegal immigrants heading to our southern border. The president seems to have been alarmed by a Fox News report about just such a caravan of more than 1,000 Hondurans heading north through Mexico, presumably on their way to try to enter the United States illegally.

President Trump reacted with anger to the possibility that the caravan’s members would be able to reach the border and then likely evade capture or, if caught, be quickly sent back to Mexico so they could be free to try their luck again. Trump in his tweets seemed to take the position that the southern border was porous, and after a few days of presidential simmering over this situation, the nation was informed that the National Guard would be called in to help deal with the problem.

Predictably, that led to liberal hysteria. The cries of outrage from the “resistance” and its media cheering squads weren’t only about Trump’s militarizing the border or his misuse of scarce military resources that are already overburdened by the conflicts in the Middle East. It didn’t take long for the New York Times to editorialize about the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 and worries about a presidential demagogue using the military to enforce domestic policies rather than defend the nation. The Times news section helpfully chimed in with a story headlined, “All It Takes Is One Mistake,” about the possibility of trigger-happy troops killing innocents at the border or even starting a war with Mexico.

Suffice it to say that there is fault to be found on both sides of the political divide in this kerfuffle, but even if you admit that Trump was wrong about there being a crisis at the border and that his reaction was politically motivated, the pushback against him on this was even less defensible than the presidential tweet storm.

The prospect of caravans of illegals heading north through Mexico is troubling but did not justify the hysterical nature of Trump’s reaction as he condemned “weak” U.S. laws. The president wrote of a “horrible, horrible, unsafe” situation at the border and seemed to consider it a given that federal efforts to secure the border would inevitably fail.

It’s likely that his willingness to treat this story as a crisis was not limited to any concern about the possibility of a wave of illegals crossing into the United States. The criticism the president has received from elements of his base about the failure of Congress to provide funding for a border wall in the omnibus spending bill that he signed last month has gotten under his very thin skin. When Sean Hannity or other members of his cheering section on Fox News aren’t happy, that gets his attention. So a Trump overreaction to a feature about a possible breach of the border by illegals was a given.

The idea that there is something outlandish or even ominous in the use of National Guard troops to deal with a problem at the border is absurd.

But the worst thing about this from Trump’s point of view was not his willingness to throw the military at the problem. Rather, it was that, in portraying the situation at the border as a crisis, he was stepping on a key achievement of his administration.

Since Trump became president, the number of illegal immigrants crossing into the country has fallen to a historic low. Not since 1970 have there been so few illegals attempting to enter the United States. While there was a general decline in illegal immigration over the past decade as a result of the 2008 recession and the anemic recovery under President Obama, the dramatic drop since January 2017 is clearly attributable to Trump’s election. With him in the White House, those contemplating illegal entry are no longer assured that they would be able to stay in the United States even if they were caught, as many may have thought as a result of Obama’s executive orders granting amnesty to millions of illegals.

Rather than boast of a clear victory that is a direct result of his tough stance on immigration, Trump allowed himself to be goaded into acting as if the situation on his watch had gotten worse rather than better.

Yet even if we concede that the Trump Twitter freak-out about the threat from these caravans was foolish, it was, as is so often the case with this administration, not quite as foolish as the reaction from his opponents. One can argue that the National Guard has higher priorities these days than stopping a few hundred Hondurans from entering the United States. But the idea that there is something outlandish or even ominous in the use of National Guard troops to deal with a problem at the border is absurd.

Both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush did the same thing at various points in their administration. Nor is there any danger that the Guard will be employed as political shock troops. The Department of Homeland Security is coordinating with the governors of the various states involved. As to worries about the Guardsmen misbehaving or being trigger-happy, that’s not a critique of Trump but of selfless Americans serving their country (and who, thanks to their frequent deployments overseas in recent years, are far more disciplined and better trained than the Guardsmen involved in the 1970 Kent State shooting that some were citing as an ominous precedent this week). They deserve better from the likes of the New York Times editorial board.

Nor is it reasonable to act as if there is nothing wrong with large groups of people who are clearly headed north to enter the United States without permission. While, as subsequent coverage indicated, some of the Hondurans plan to apply for asylum, most are simply looking for work and hope to cross the border illegally. It is the responsibility of the government to enforce the law, and the notion that it is heartless or wrong to take action to prevent their crossing is not so much an attack on Trump as it is on legal norms.

It may be easy to take potshots at Trump’s overreactions whereby he hypes a manageable if serious situation at the border into a nonexistent crisis. But if conservatives are angry about immigration these days, it’s not a function of racism but a justified reaction to contempt for the law in the growing sanctuary-city movement. The support that Democrats have given to the notion that local officials have no responsibility to cooperate with federal immigration authorities is outrageous. It legitimizes the belief that the rule of law is under assault and must be defended at all costs.

It ought to be possible to discuss illegal immigration without either unjustified alarmism or treating the clear intent of undocumented immigrants to cross the border as a matter of no consequence or even something that the government should be prepared to wink at. But that is the state of our contemporary political culture. Trump’s willingness to inflate a manageable problem into a crisis is lamentable. But those who habitually oppose any federal action to secure the border or enforce immigration laws are in no position to criticize him for using measures that other presidents have employed to little or no criticism.

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