November 5, 2018

Trump and the Caravan: Why is he flexing the military’s muscle at an imaginary crisis?



President Trump has a well-documented—and troubling—history of politicizing the military. Also well-documented are his relentless and hateful attacks on immigrants. His latest attempt to rally his base as the midterms approach combines both of these impulses to breathtakingly misguided effect.

According to the Department of Defense, (DoD), Operation Faithful Patriot—which would send around 5,200 troops to the U.S. border with Mexico, with another 7,000 troops reportedly in reserve—is ostensibly meant assist  Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel in light of what President Trump called a “National Emergy”: the caravan of asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle that Trump falsely alleges is teeming with “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners.”

The facts—yet again—elude the President. There is no emergency. There is no crisis. Trump’s fear-mongering is merely an extension of his ongoing  effort to stir up the anti-immigrant electorate, but this time it comes with a twist: the politicization of the military in order to exaggerate a relatively common occurrence in immigration for electoral advantage.

Most reliable sources put the number of caravaners between 4,000-8,000 people (but probably closer to the low end) who are making a grueling journey from Honduras together — safety in numbers — to legally claim asylum in the United States.

These people, along with most other asylum seekers from Northern Triangle countries, are fleeing from accelerating levels of gang activities, which threaten to make them victims of unspeakable violence—from murder to rape to human trafficking. Coupled with largely ineffectual attempts by local law enforcement to combat this violence, it’s obvious why the local population is fleeing in droves.

This is hardly a new phenomenon, as indicated by the growing number of asylum applicants over the past decade.

The application data is good only to demonstrate who comes to the border and when. The rate of denials for asylum claims averages between 50-60 percent, meaning that most of the people who claim asylum at the border, do not get legal status in the United States for myriad complicated reasons.

But if the border is not being swarmed by asylum seekers, is CBP perhaps overwhelmed by “illegals”? Nope. Border apprehensions made by CBP officials have been steadily declining for over a decade, and  are now the lowest they’ve been in a long time. In 2017, total apprehensions fell to 303,916, which  sounds high, until you compare it to the over 1.6 million apprehensions in 2000.

This latest deployment plan is not only completely unjustifiable in light of those numbers; it’s shockingly excessive when compared to our other military deployments. Official data on troop deployments in war zones is has become harder to come by  (thanks, Trump).  But last year, the Pentagon acknowledged that there were 5,200 U.S. service members in Syria, with another 2,000 in Iraq, and suggested “those numbers are trending down.” And according to recent media reports, the U.S. military has around 14,000 active-duty personnel on the ground in Afghanistan (supplemented by significant numbers of contractors).

The missions the military is conducting in those theaters of actual war, juxtaposed against  the imaginary border crisis, are obviously incomparable to an unarmed caravan of migrants fleeing violence and deprivation — on foot and often in family units — presenting themselves at a port of entry to request legal asylum. Yet the president, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon would have the American public believe that these people are terrorists and criminals.

There is no shortage of statistics demonstrating that foreigners and immigrants in the U.S. rarely commit crimes or acts of terrorism. Among the well worn facts: since 9/11, less than 2 percent of U.S. terrorists were foreigners. In 17 years, thirty-five foreigners who entered the U.S. via our immigration system were convicted of or were killed during the commission or planning of a terrorist offense. Not one American was killed. No refugee has successfully carried out a deadly terrorist attack in the United States in the 40 years of the program’s existence.

What’s more, immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans and are less likely to engage in criminal behavior or be put behind bars. And of the hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors who entered the United States, only 56 were even suspected of having MS-13 ties (a fact that dispels one of the President’s favorite talking points).

Of course, these are not statistics he is eager to share, as they contradict his claims that  gang members and other “very bad people” are invading the country. And while the deployment the Pentagon has outlined is for support functions, the president wants people to believe he’s sending trigger pullers to repel an invasion.

The U.S. military is one of the few public institutions in which the American public places a great deal of trust. President Trump has routinely linked himself rhetorically and politically to the military in ways that violate civil-military norms. Deploying the military to the border increases the perception that immigrants represent a national security threat — a coming invasion. Instead, it is a ploy to use our proud military as a means to further the president’s political agenda, and will eventually erode the institution’s credibility as an apolitical actor.

Operation Faithful Patriot couldn’t be a more accurate misnomer or a more egregious waste of resources. But it is, unfortunately, perfectly on-brand for President Trump.