Editorial: On the Migrant Caravan

In the days leading up to the midterm elections, we heard politicians play on fears of a “migrant caravan” making its way to the U.S.-Mexico border. These Central Americans fleeing the violence, poor economic conditions, and political persecution of their home countries were accused of “invading” the United States, prompting President Donald Trump to deploy 5,200 troops to the border. Just as distressing was the language of “infection” we heard from some corners of the media in describing the migrants, with baseless claims that they were carriers of HIV, leprosy, and tuberculosis.

The tragedy in all of this is manifold. There is the dehumanization of individuals and families who are seeking to escape drastic conditions. There is the fact that decades of U.S. foreign policy, such as our support of a corrupt Honduran government in the wake of a 2009 military coup, has contributed to the destabilization of Central America. And there is the sad reality that the U.S. government manufactured a crisis out of the caravan while the real crisis went unmentioned: namely, the 12,800 migrant children still reported to be in detention centers as of September.

On October 27, the alarmist rhetoric around the caravan manifested itself in a truly hateful act: a lone gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and opened fire, resulting in the deaths of 11 people. Prior to carrying out the massacre, the gunman repeatedly referenced HIAS, an immigrant-assistance group established as the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, on a social-media site. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he wrote; another post accused HIAS of “bring[ing] in hostile invaders to dwell among us.”

The fear-mongering around the caravan clearly played into the shooter’s timing and target. For weeks, unfounded rumors about terrorists and “criminals” being among the caravan had spread throughout the news cycle, turning a group of people approximately 1,000 miles away from the U.S. border—each with his or her own story, each with the legal right to seek asylum in the country of his or her choosing—into an imminent threat. “Our border is sacred,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday October 31, before telling reporters he was prepared to increase the troop presence to as many as 15,000. As Nancy A. Youssef and Alex Leary pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, this “would roughly equal the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”

Several observers rightfully saw this as a political stunt, designed to attract attention in the run-up to the elections. In an interview with CNN, one former military official raised a vital question that is harrowing to contemplate: “What if something does happen and lethal force is deployed, and you have the U.S. military firing at unarmed civilians?” The culture of suspicion we have created around immigrants, not to mention the militarization of immigration enforcement that predates Trump but has reached new levels under his watch, makes this a not ungrounded fear.

It is distressing to see how unmoored we have become from basic facts. In recent years we have turned more and more to conspiracy theories, manipulations of the truth, and distortions about the consequences of our imperial ambitions as a way of making sense of a chaotic world. Instead of looking at the root causes of Central American migration—violence and political repression; trade deals that have gutted public-sector jobs and forced small farmers to compete with subsidized agribusinesses; draught, unpredictable weather, and other effects of climate change that impact food production, to name a few—we create stories that fit everything into a tidy narrative.

It is difficult, humbling work to parse the decades of economic and other policies that have caused this mass migration, especially when they might implicate us. Multinational trade agreements such as CAFTA-DR were supposed to increase the standard of living for Central Americans; instead, they have wedded corporate and state power, weakened protections for workers, and crushed union activity (in 2017, the AFL-CIO reported that 83 trade unionists have been murdered in Guatemala since CAFTA-DR took effect).

Michelle Chen’s article in the February 6, 2015, issue of the Nation (“How US ‘Free Trade’ Policies Created the Central American Migration Crisis”) examines the ways CAFTA-DR set the stage for the “economic migration” we are currently seeing. Yet beyond some isolated examples, these narratives are rarely discussed in the mainstream media. In their absence flood a range of conspiracy theories, such as Florida representative Matt Gaetz insinuating that billionaire philanthropist George Soros was secretly funding the migrant caravan. That this suggestion was given purchase by the media, and even echoed by President Trump, shows how strained we are to understand the conditions of our world today.

Catholics and Christians are called to respond to the migration crisis in many ways. Clearly the root of our response must be founded in the Gospels, especially in the reading of the Beatitudes as we heard on the Solemnity of All Saints. Christ is very clear here about the importance of showing mercy to others as we would want it shown to us, of doing the hard work of peacemaking that attends to the meek, the poor, and the marginalized.

There is another angle of response, perhaps not as vital in the moment but important nonetheless, and equally grounded in Scripture. This is the need to see things clearly and truthfully and not disassemble before God. It means internalizing the words of Psalm 138: “O Lord, you search me and you know me, you know my resting and my rising, you discern my purpose from afar.” As we as individuals cannot hide from God, neither can we hide our collective sins behind a smokescreen of stories and obscurantist language. We must be honest with ourselves and with each other, from our leaders on down, about the ways we have enabled global inequality that leads to mass migration.

There was a moment of brutal self-honesty from our leaders last month, though it was not in relation to the caravan. In the days following the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, we watched as President Trump hedged and demurred as the world demanded to know whether the Saudi government was involved. Condemning the crime at one moment, trotting out a theory about “rouge killers” the next, the president seemed unable to commit to a position. At one point he compared the Saudi government’s denials to those of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, lamenting that both were examples of “you’re guilty until proven innocent.”

Finally, during remarks at the White House on October 13, Trump made clear why he was avoiding criticizing the Saudis. “They’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment and other things,” he said. “If we don’t sell it to them, they’ll say, ‘Well, thank you very much. We’ll buy it from Russia.’ Or ‘Thank you very much. We’ll buy it from China.’” A few days later, evangelical leader Pat Robertson parroted the president’s logic, saying, “[We’ve] got $100 billion in arms sales . . . we cannot alienate our biggest player in the Middle East.”

Here was the opposite of the conspiracy theory: a moment of total, frightening clarity. Our priorities were revealed, and they were not the protection of free speech and human rights. In Slate, William Saletan commented trenchantly: “By looking the other way while the Saudis murder Khashoggi and cover it up, [Trump is] protecting corporate profits and jobs in key electoral states. The only price, aside from a man’s life, is our soul.” If we could only speak as candidly about our moral obligations as we do our economic interests, we might remember that our soul is not something we can easily buy back.

Michael Centore
Editor, Today’s American Catholic


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