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:
- Very few members of the caravan are likely to make it all the way to the U.S. border anyway.
- 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.
- 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.
- Any whose fear of returning is judged to be credible will be admitted into the asylum process. Pending their asylum decisions:
- Individual adults will most likely be detained.
- Unaccompanied children will be put in special shelters and placed with relatives or foster homes.
- Families will most likely end up being released with ankle bracelets or other monitoring systems.
- 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.
- 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.