Last week, a group of twelve hundred people, almost all of them Hondurans, gathered at Mexico’s border with Guatemala to start a long journey north toward the United States. Their goal was to seek asylum in this country or, failing that, to call attention to the widespread violence in their home countries, which had forced them to flee for their lives. On Sunday, the hosts of the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends” placed a call to a regular guest named Brandon Judd, the president of the largest union of U.S. Border Patrol agents and asked him to explain what was happening. Judd blamed the governments of the U.S. and Mexico. The migrants knew, he said, that the U.S. would “catch and release” them if they reached the United States, and the Mexican government was assisting the travelers along their route. Neither statement was accurate—eighty per cent of Hondurans seeking asylum are turned away at the U.S. border, and the Mexican government has hardly been helping the migrants. According to Judd, the current situation was proof that the flow of migrants would continue because of “Obama holdovers” and congressional Democrats. He urged Republicans to use the “nuclear option” to overcome partisan opposition and to pass tougher immigration laws.
Shortly after the broadcast, President Trump started tweeting. “Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release,” he wrote. “Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW.” The tweets continued Monday, when the migrants reached Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. To Trump, the journey of this “caravan”—as media began calling the migrants—activated a long list of personal grievances. He reiterated his call to build a border wall (“NEED WALL!”); attacked the Mexican government (“Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING at stopping people”); said he would cut off aid money to Honduras; threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement (Mexico’s “cash cow”); and claimed that the migrants were coming to “take advantage of DACA,” despite the fact that none of them were eligible for the program.
It was, by now, a familiar feedback loop: the President, reacting to a Fox News broadcast, launches a tweet storm that then drives a news cycle. Some of the President’s tweets—his threat to penalize the Honduran government, his claim that immigration was surging—directly contradicted recent statements made by his own Administration. White House officials held a conference call with reporters on Monday to try to put the President’s tweets in context—and took the opportunity to tout some recent accomplishments: earlier this week, the Justice Department announced a plan to impose quotas on immigration judges to speed up deportations, and new measures are under consideration to make it harder for immigrants both to seek asylum and to qualify for legal residency.
By Tuesday, the Mexican government had deported four hundred of the migrants. Officials were trying to negotiate with the remaining eight hundred or so in a small town called Matias Romero, about eight hundred miles south of the U.S. border. It seemed likely that most of the group’s members would never reach the U.S. Many of the Hondurans said that they would be content to stay in Mexico if they could; their main concern had been escaping the immediate violence at home. One of them was María Elena Colindres Ortega, a Honduran who, until January, had been a member of the national Congress. “We’ve had to live through a fraudulent electoral process,” she told Reuters. “We’re suffering a progressive militarization and lack of institutions. . . . They’re criminalizing those who protested.” She was referring to the government of Juan Orlando Hernández, who in December won an election he had appeared to hijack in plain sight. The U.S. has continued to support him despite serial human-rights abuses and brazen authoritarian behavior, in part because he has promised to crack down on criminal gangs and drug trafficking.
If the Trump Administration wants to restrict immigration from Central America, it needs partners in the region. But the President’s outbursts are putting crucial relationships at risk, particularly in Mexico, where public support for the government, already dismal, has dropped further because of perceptions that it’s failed to stand up to Trump. Members of the Trump Administration are in the middle of complex negotiations with the Mexican government at the moment. Both sides are rushing to reach a preliminary deal on NAFTA before a regional summit in Peru, next week. Just before the President launched his tweet storm on Sunday, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, publicly lauded the Mexican government for an “excellent” dialogue about “shared security and economic interests.” Four years ago, Mexico instituted a policy, called Frontera Sur, that many in the region refer to as the “invisible wall”—limiting the flow of migrants north by apprehending them at Mexico’s southern border and deporting large numbers back to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The “caravan” of migrants that caught Trump’s attention began their recent march in Tapachula, a Mexican border town that boasts the biggest immigrant-detention center in Latin America.
The real irony of this story may be that the President’s principal grievance isn’t with the migrants or foreign governments he’s now publicly berating but with the Republican-controlled Congress. Last month, lawmakers passed a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that skimped on funding for his border wall. Congress gave the Administration 1.6 billion dollars for “fencing” along the U.S.-Mexico border, which was actually in line with what the Administration had requested last year for barriers in California and Texas. But the President’s pet project—his “big, fat, beautiful” wall, for which he wanted twenty-five billion dollars—was ignored. That led Trump to consider seeking funding from the U.S. military, which was about as likely to pay for the wall as Mexico ever was. (To keep his options open, Trump tweeted, “Build WALL through M!”)
On Tuesday, after summoning his Secretary of Defense for a briefing, Trump announced that he would dispatch the U.S. military to secure the border. “Until we can have a wall and proper security, we’re going to be guarding our border with the military,” he told reporters at a White House press conference. “That’s a big step.” The next day, Nielsen announced that Trump would be signing a proclamation to send more National Guardsmen to the border. Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, issued a statement of his own extolling Trump’s leadership. “The President was clear that this caravan needed to be stopped before it arrived at our southern border, and his efforts now appear to be successful,” he said. Previous Presidents have sent waves of National Guardsmen to the border—George W. Bush did, in 2006, and Barack Obama did, in 2010. Each time, it was a costly prop for political theatre. Just after Trump’s announcement, I had asked one D.H.S. official what the guardsmen would do at the border this time around, at a moment when border crossings are at their lowest point since 1971. “Unclear,” he said.