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A thousand miles or so from the southern U.S. border, Central American migrants are on the march. What began with around 5,000 people has swelled to as many as 14,000—and possibly more. They have traveled on foot approximately 500 miles so far, walking through immigration checkpoints in Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico with minimal resistance. Their stated aim is to enter the United States, even if they have to break our laws to do it.
This “caravan” is America’s illegal immigration crisis, personified: Thousands of migrants whose individual origins are unknown, marching toward the United States because they know they likely will be let in, facing little resistance at the borders of other sovereign nations, and organized for the purpose of making a political point.
As the country careens toward the midterms, what are we to make of this? There are three broad conclusions we can draw at this point.
The Timing, The Scale and the Size Suggest Organization
Press reports breathlessly discuss this trek as some sort of organic, ideological movement of people whose quest is to seek a better life. Many countries in South America have rotten living conditions (including those claiming to be a socialist paradise), so the “why” is somewhat obvious.
But no intrepid reporter has managed to provide a definitive answer to the second obvious question: Why now?
Conditions in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where many of the migrants are thought to originate, are indeed terrible. According to Pew Research, 34 percent of El Salvadorans are living in poverty, topped by the 54 percent living in similar conditions in Guatemala. In Honduras, which competes with El Salvador and Venezuela for the highest homicide rate in the world, 65 percent of the country is destitute. In short, these are incredibly difficult and dangerous places to live.
But, as immigration policy analysts have pointed out, these countries have been difficult and dangerous places for quite a long time. In fact, the poverty rate in Honduras hasn’t changed in over a decade. So, why now? Why, suddenly, does a huge swell of migrants collectively decide to storm the U.S. border, all at the same time?
More to the point, why is this suddenly happening two weeks before a midterm election where immigration is a key issue for American voters?
Sure, maybe the Washington Post and the New York Times are right, and in three of the world’s poorest countries, television programs, flyers, and Facebook groups were enough to organize, feed and fund a two-month hike to Texas for more than 7,000 people, conveniently timed to an election.
More likely, as we’ve seen with similar Central American “caravans,” these marches are politically planned and organized.
Pueblo sin Fronteras (People without Borders), the open-borders activist group that led a 1,500 person campaign to the U.S. border in April, is thought to be at least partially organizing this current border surge. The group, which is based out of Chicago and funded by a web of left-leaning organizations, has planned and led marches of migrants to the U.S. border each year since 2008.
Though the New York Times denies the group’s involvement, one of the group’s organizers has been identified by the Associated Press as a “leader of the migrant caravan” and is on record speaking out in favor of it. The Wall Street Journal also confirmed at least one of the migrants’ organizers is affiliated with Pueblo sin Fronteras. Last week, Irenoe Mujico, a Pueblo sin Fronteras activist from Arizona, was arrested in Mexico while “taking part” in the current caravan.
Theories as to who else may be involved have ricocheted across the web, from George Soros and his Open Society Foundation, to the government of Venezuela. (Soros and Venezuela’s president have denied those stories.)
Regardless, it’s clear that some level of organization and funding was needed to pull this off, for this long, at exactly the right time.
Our Amnesty Loopholes Encourage Lawbreakers
The migrants have made clear that the goal of their trek is to enter the United States, legally or illegally, and claim asylum. U.S. law allows a person who enters the country illegally to claim a “credible fear” of being tortured or prosecuted if they return to their home country. They then cannot be deported until their case is heard by a judge. Most are released into the interior of the country while waiting to begin what can be a years-long legal proceeding. Some continue to show up for court. Many do not.
This “catch and release” policy is one that President Trump has tried to end. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in particular, has made an effort to tighten asylum standards, after cases of “credible fear” skyrocketed during the Obama years. Trump’s efforts have been hindered by a lack of resources at the border. Sessions has been outright blocked by Republicans in Congress.
The ease with which illegal immigrants can enter the country and stay here encourages more illegal immigration than it stops. Under President Obama, asylum cases more than octupled from 5,523 in 2009 to 81,864 in 2016. Did the world suddenly get 16 times more dangerous from 2009 to 2016? Or did illegal immigrants simply realize what to say to federal agents to meet the threshold for a more lenient “credible fear” designation?
It’s not hard to put this together. If illegal immigrants understand they have a surefire way to cross the border illegally and be allowed to stay, of course they’ll do it. As the president of the National Border Council told Congress, “individuals entering the U.S. illegally know they will be released if apprehended. The result is no one is afraid of the law.”
If things continue this way, this caravan will only beget another. And another.
Republicans Need (Finally) to Do Something
The only way to rebuff a group of thousands marching toward the border is to be ready for it. Trump has announced he would send 800 troops to the border, but it’s unlikely to make a dent.
What the border needs is resourcing—money to hire more judges to adjudicate asylum claims, more agents to police illegal entries, and more room to house illegal crossers instead of simply releasing them. This requires Congress to engage.
For Republicans, this also represents an opportunity.
Whether intentional or not, the thousands of migrants surging toward the U.S. border may be the last defining political issue voters remember before the midterms. This gives Republicans the chance finally to show their mettle after years of giving lip service to strong border security. It also gives Democrats openings to show their true selves on questions of sovereignty and open borders.
The only way truly to lay these differences bare is to recall Congress from the campaign trail for a day, and vote—to provide resources to the border, to reform the asylum process that encourages these caravans, and to turn the conversation toward the security, sovereignty, and humanitarian threats posed by a weak border and feeble enforcement.
Republicans have managed to dodge the immigration question for years. But now there are thousands of migrants surging straight toward the U.S. border, daring them to keep ignoring it. Will they?
Photo Credit: Orlando Estrada/AFP/Getty Images