Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.


October 2018

Coming back soon

I’m sorry to have neglected this site over the past several days. Having a topic I work on (security at the U.S.-Mexico border) become one of the largest news stories in the country for two weeks running has left little time to post thoughts and links here. Also, most of my “rough drafts” have gone straight to WOLA’s website, or to social media, without stopping here first.

Over the past week I’ve spoken to nearly every U.S. print media outlet (some Google News links here), done some radio in English and TV in Spanish, and participated in meetings with migrant-policy coalitions that are pretty new to me. I spoke to two audiences last week, and last weekend I finished a chapter about Colombia for a colleague’s upcoming book about corruption and organized crime. And I’ve been tweeting lots of infographics, which I’m pleased to say are getting shared a lot.

I list all that not to show off, but to try to explain why I’ve ended up leaving this space temporarily abandoned.

Between the geographic diffusion of the “migrant caravan” (making it less camera-friendly), the news cycle’s inevitable tendency to move on to other things, and a somewhat less-intense meeting and event schedule over the next week and a half, I expect to be able to post here more regularly again very shortly.

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Monday, October 29

  • 11:00–12:30 at CSIS: What Lies Ahead as Argentina Navigates a Multifaceted Political and Economic Crisis? (RSVP required).

Tuesday, October 30

  • 1:00–3:35 at the American Enterprise Institute: Unraveling the web: Dismantling transnational organized crime networks in the Americas (RSVP required).
  • 2:00–3:30 at the Wilson Center: Presentation by Roberto Campa, Secretary of Mexico’s Department of Labor and Social Welfare (RSVP required).
  • 4:00–5:30 at the Wilson Center: Brazilian Elections: Second-Round Results and U.S.-Brazil Relations Under a New Administration (RSVP required).
  • 6:00–7:30 at Johns Hopkins SAIS Kenney Auditorium: Walking Blindfolded into the Abyss? Priorities for Brazil’s New President (RSVP required).

Wednesday, October 31

  • 8:30–11:00 at the Inter-American Dialogue: The Americas’ Refugee Crisis: Responding to Forced Migration from Venezuela (RSVP required).
  • 5:30–7:00 at American University: An Evening with Carmen Boullosa (RSVP required).

Thursday, November 1

  • 9:00 at the Atlantic Council: A New Brazilian Economic Order? The Post-Election Outlook (RSVP required).

The day ahead: October 25, 2018

I’m intermittently available all day. (How to contact me)

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, but I think that interest/hysteria about the “migrant caravan” is flagging, as the number of participants goes down and they start to break up into smaller groups that don’t provide such dramatic visuals. I anticipate spending less time talking to people about it today, and more time finishing a (now horrifically) overdue book chapter about Colombia.

I’ve got a TV interview in the morning and lunch with a colleague. Either before or after that, or both, I’ll be writing a piece about the 2018 border migration numbers, and finishing the above-mentioned chapter. Some of that will happen at home, some with the door closed and the phone off in my office, so I may not be immediately reachable.

There’s No Emotionally Satisfying Response to Trump “Caravan Rage”

As the latest Central American migrant caravan limps through Chiapas, the first of up to a dozen Mexican states lying between them and the U.S. border, Donald Trump has seized on them as his best hope for maintaining a Republican majority in Congress. He and others on the U.S. right have gone into overdrive with rhetoric about an “invasion” and a “national emergency.” “Today’s Democrat Party would rather protect criminal aliens than AMERICAN CITIZENS,” the president tweeted.

This is all ridiculous, of course. But the real, fact-based responses to this frame lack the emotional appeal of Trump’s rage. The accurate response makes for an unemotional and technocratic narrative:

  1. Very few members of the caravan are likely to make it all the way to the U.S. border anyway.
  2. If the caravan’s remaining members try to cross the border improperly, Border Patrol will detain them. They’ll be easy to detect traveling in a big group. Many will be deported quickly.
  3. If the caravan’s remaining members try to petition for asylum at an official port of entry (which is what the 200-300 remaining members of April’s caravan did), they will be processed, and those determined not to face a “credible fear” of return will be deported.
  4. Any whose fear of returning is judged to be credible will be admitted into the asylum process. Pending their asylum decisions:
    1. Individual adults will most likely be detained.
    2. Unaccompanied children will be put in special shelters and placed with relatives or foster homes.
    3. Families will most likely end up being released with ankle bracelets or other monitoring systems.
  5. Right now, the asylum process may take years. Demand for asylum has increased worldwide during this decade. The United States lacks judges and credible fear adjudicators to deal with the new demand, causing a backlog that delays asylum decisions. This is a problem, but one that is neither insurmountable nor prohibitively expensive to deal with—especially compared to the cost of detention.
  6. Programs to reduce the drivers of migration in Central America need generous funding. These programs will take a while to yield results. Central American leaders who aren’t helping address insecurity and poverty—like those who tolerate or engage in corruption—should be called out and isolated.

See? That took me six bullet points to explain, with sub-points. And I had to fudge the details to an extent that would exasperate an actual immigration lawyer.

This “get under the hood and tinker” or “wrestle with the details of governing” approach is reassuring to anyone willing to listen. It says, “We can deal with this, it’s mostly about logistics and streamlining procedures. With more manpower, we can speed up the process and people with weak asylum claims won’t bother to come.”

But this frame isn’t working in today’s politics. It doesn’t fit well in a tweet. It doesn’t come with compelling visuals. (While our side is explaining things on a whiteboard, the other has scary videos of hordes breaking through Mexican border gates.) It presupposes that there’s an opposing side that’s interested in finding common ground and rolling up sleeves to work on a solution. It appeals to reason, but not to emotion.

And if our current national debate is about emotion, not facts, it’s no wonder that Democratic midterm candidates are avoiding discussion of the “caravan.”

Some might say, “What about human compassion toward migrants and their suffering? Isn’t that an appeal to emotion?” Of course it is. But in U.S. public opinion right now, it’s not working like the rage that Donald Trump uses to stir up his base supporters. U.S. journalists keep publishing sympathetic accounts of caravan participants recounting the barbarity and deprivation they’re fleeing. But these don’t generate the ratings and social-media shares that “invasion”-themed coverage gets in the Fox News and Breitbart spheres.

Appeals to rage are motivating more people than appeals to compassion or reason-based policy prescriptions. I don’t know whether that’s a basic fact of human nature, or a unique reflection of this authoritarian-leaning moment in U.S. history.

And I’m a terrible person to ask. I’m a Latin Americanist born and raised in the liberal northeast United States, where nearly all of my family is. When I travel, I travel to Latin America, or perhaps to college towns in the U.S. interior. I’m not in a position to explain why rage is working so well in America right now. I want to spend more of the next year traveling around my own country and listening.

The day ahead: October 24, 2018

I’ll be hard to reach today. (How to contact me)

After another day of public speaking, meetings, and talking pretty constantly on the phone about the “caravan,” I’m more behind on work than ever. It won’t get better today, as I’m spending the afternoon speaking at, and attending, a conference on gangs and migration at George Mason University out in the Virginia suburbs.

I’ll try to catch up this website tonight, at least, if I don’t fall asleep. In the meantime, I will hardly be in an office or easily able to talk on the phone today.

9 Questions (and Answers) About the Central American Migrant Caravan

A new resource at WOLA’s website provides quick, fact-filled, documented and cited answers to these questions:

  1. Why are people leaving? And why are they leaving now? (Short answer: violence, corruption, climate, domestic violence, and economics.)
  2. Can Trump cut aid to Central America? (Short answer: no.)
  3. Why are people traveling as a caravan? (Short answer: safety in numbers.)
  4. What happened to the migrant caravan that attracted so much vitriol from President Trump earlier this year? (Short answer: it dwindled to almost nothing.)
  5. President Trump has threatened to shut down the entire U.S.-Mexico border to forestall anyone from the migrant caravan turning themselves into U.S. authorities to seek asylum, or to cross the border. What would happen if the U.S.-Mexico border is shut down? (Short answer: you’d probably see the effect in the Dow and S&P 500.)
  6. What is Mexico’s policy towards the migrant caravan? (Short answer: lots of cops and a request for UN help.)
  7. Will threats mitigate migration flows from Central America? (Short answer: no.)
  8. Why are Central American countries not stopping caravans? (Short answer: freedom of assembly and movement.)
  9. What should the U.S. government do if members of the caravan reach the U.S.-Mexico border? (Short answer: it’s a humanitarian and logistical problem, not an “invasion.”)

Read the whole thing here.

The day ahead: October 23, 2018

I’ll be hard to reach today. (How to contact me)

I enjoyed talking to reporters for much of the day yesterday—I always learn a lot—and I’m glad we’re “participating in the debate” on this migrant caravan issue. But my plans for yesterday’s “strategic not tactical” work were obliterated by a few tweets from the reality-TV personality who occupies the White House. (WOLA’s Mexico and Central America program directors, and policy director, are all traveling, so I came in off the bench and substituted.) As a result, I didn’t write a word of any of the three nearly completed Colombia writing projects that, I’d said yesterday, I’d hoped to advance on.

I don’t expect to do much writing today, either, and it may be a while before I even do my usual “news links” post on this site. Today I’m guest-teaching a class at the Foreign Service Institute, have calls scheduled with a journalist and the Inter-American Defense College, and a late-afternoon meeting with refugee groups. There will be more calls and e-mails. So in the moments when I’m at a desk, it will probably be responding to the evolving caravan situation. Usually I’d catch up on the other work at night, but since I’m doing public speaking today and tomorrow, I need to sleep.

The day ahead: October 22, 2018

I’m reachable for much of the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m in internal WOLA meetings in the morning, and meeting with a think-tank colleague about Colombia in the mid-afternoon. Otherwise I plan to be writing one or two of three different publications about Colombia, and preparing a talk I’m giving at George Mason University on Wednesday. I’ll be in the office extra-late because of a late childcare pickup, so hope to get a lot of writing done.

The week ahead

Okay. No visitors in town this week, it’s time to get some stuff done. The plan is to finish full first or final drafts of three different long-form articles about Colombia that I’ve been working on. A report based on our early September field research, a chapter for a colleague’s edited volume (which is very late), and the paper I gave at the Latin American Studies Association conference in May (just needs footnotes and a final edit). All are very far along.

In addition, I’m guest-teaching a class at the Foreign Service Institute Tuesday, speaking on a panel at George Mason University Wednesday, and have a sprinkling of other meetings. I also plan to post video of last week’s conference. And then there’s the small matter of the “migrant caravan,” which I’m also covering. So I’m buckled in and ready to go.

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Tuesday, October 23

  • 9:00–11:00 at the Wilson Center: Turmoil in Nicaragua: Is There an End in Sight? (RSVP required).

Wednesday, October 24

  • 11:00–12:00 at the Brookings Institution: Financial tools for US policy toward Nicaragua and Venezuela: A conversation with Treasury Assistant Secretary Marshall Billingslea (RSVP required).
  • 1:00–6:00 at George Mason University: Panel on Gangs, Migration, and Homeland SecurityI’m speaking here, come by and say “hi.”

Thursday, October 25

  • 12:30–2:00 at Georgetown University Intercultural Center: Human Rights and the Question of Genocide in the Guatemalan Civil War (RSVP required).

Some articles I found interesting this morning

AP photo. Caption: “Cientos de migrantes hondureños se reúnen a orillas del río Suchiate en la frontera entre Guatemala y México, en Tecún Umán, Guatemala, el jueves 18 de octubre de 2018.”

(Even more here)

October 19, 2018

Western Hemisphere Regional


Central America Regional, Mexico


  • Proyecto Contra la Verdad Inicio su Tramite (El Espectador (Colombia), October 19, 2018).

    Un representante a la Cámara por el Centro Democrático radicó una iniciativa que busca evitar que la JEP, la Comisión de la Verdad y la Unidad de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas puedan acceder a información militar de carácter reservado

  • Erika Pineros, The Women Abandoned by Peace (Foreign Policy, October 19, 2018).

    Victims of sexual violence and forced abortion during Colombia’s long years of conflict have yet to see justice


  • Jo-Marie Burt, Bittersweet Justice in Guatemala (The Progressive, October 19, 2018).

    A Guatemalan court found that the army committed genocide against the Maya Ixil, but at the same time acquitted the chief of military intelligence of wrongdoing

Guatemala, Honduras

  • Kirk Semple, What Is the Migrant Caravan and Why Does Trump Care? (The New York Times, October 19, 2018).

    Here are answers to some questions about the migrant caravan that has upset Mr. Trump this week and inflamed political concerns throughout the region

Guatemala, Mexico

  • Claudia Torrens, Sonia Perez D., Mexico Comienza a Atender a Migrantes de Caravana (Associated Press **, October 19, 2018).

    Aunque el grueso de la caravana todavía estaba en territorio guatemalteco el jueves por la noche, la cancillería mexicana anunció en un comunicado que ya inició una atención “ordenada” a quienes habían cruzado


  • Sandra Cuffe, Honduran Activists Welcome Trump’s Threats to Cut Us Aid (Al Jazzeera, October 19, 2018).

    Many human rights activists in Honduras and in the US have expressed concern over the way the Hernandez government has addressed insecurity. They’ve advocated for years for initiatives that would cut, freeze, or condition US security aid



  • Authorities Stepped Up Strategy for Repression in Nicaragua (Amnesty International, October 19, 2018).

    Instilling terror: From lethal force to persecution in Nicaragua documents grave human rights violations and crimes under international law that the Nicaraguan authorities committed between 30 May and 18 September


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