Editor’s Note: Patricia Fernández-Kelly is a professor of sociology at Princeton University, where she directs the Center for Migration and Development. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
According to President Donald Trump, the mightiest, richest country in the world is under a threat so huge and scary that it will require the deployment of military forces – as many as 2,000 to 4.000, Trump said Thursday – along its 2,000-mile southern border. The danger consists of a ragtag caravan formed by several hundred impoverished people, many of them children from tiny Central American nations. Yes, the time has come to protect America from marauding youngsters and their parents.
That preposterous notion would be the staple of satire were it not being proposed as a matter of policy by the leader of the free world.
Yet again we must ask – does Trump have no shame? Is there no end to his malignant opportunism?
There is no immigrant invasion. There’s not an avalanche of interlopers trying to break American gates in search of DACA relief. There is no reason to erect a wall or militarize the border outside the delusional world that the Trump administration has created.
Delusion, however, does not mean unreason. Trump’s vocabulary of motives is of the most abhorrent kind–to preserve the support of people whose bigotry and fear are as great as their ignorance. By playing to the anxieties of his base, the President aims to bolster his popularity. His goal is to build American unity at the expense of desperate people displaced by terror and lack of opportunity in places like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Nothing in politics works better than to create fear of an external threat to rally internal support.
This latest insult to reason occurs at a time when unauthorized migration to the US has reached negative levels–more people without papers are leaving our country than sneaking into it. Deportation rates–of felons but also compliant mothers and fathers; house cleaners and bricklayers–have reached unprecedented highs. According to the best scientific estimates, undocumented migration had virtually stopped by 2010, long before presidential candidate Trump tagged Mexicans as rapists.
A cursory review of the evidence would have revealed to Trump and his supporters at Fox News (who aired a report about the caravan of migrants shortly before Trump began an Easter Twitter tirade about “Caravans”) that reversals in illegal immigration are real for two main reasons: improving economic conditions in Mexico have led to a demographic transition that includes falling birth rates and expanding employment opportunities south of the border. That, in addition to anti-immigration policies and unprecedented numbers of deportations under the Obama administration, pushed unauthorized entries down below the statistical zero.
It seems facts are expendable when the reason behind unreason is to secure power.
Make it appear as if the country is under threat, teetering at the brink of collapse; accustom people to see escalating force as a natural response to justified concern; do all this gradually but relentlessly–that has been the tried and true formula of authoritarian populists and would-be dictators.
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Frightening? Yes, but this may be only the first step in the construction of the “crisis” that Trump will need to secure a second presidential term. If not the fake immigrant menace then perhaps escalating conflict with Iran or North Korea, or all of the above–the possibilities are enticing when your sole objective is to win.
Donald J. Trump may have no shame or moral compass but he knows what he is doing.