Some Thoughts About The Caravan

This essay was originally published on the website Medium.

Looking back, everyone involved in this Caravan story has to wonder how it led to the President declaring a national security emergency. It is about 7,000 poor, unarmed, mostly Honduran Central Americans desperately attempting to escape worsening economic and political conditions. It includes about 2,000 kids. As of today, October 23rd, the caravan is about 1,000 miles away from the closest part of the US, and at current rates will make it to the US border in early to mid-December. That is if somehow they can keep themselves fed, clothed, housed, and safe during this grueling trek north. No one is funding this journey, and recent news reports suggest many are tired and close to giving up. But what keeps them going of course is that in their minds they can’t go home, and have nowhere else to go.

A terrific Daily Beast story today details how this all started. Desperate conditions at home, and mistaken news reports that there was funding to send a caravan north. It would allow people to avoid paying $7,000 for a coyote, and there would be physical safety in numbers. Perhaps we will learn that some more nefarious plot was behind this unusual event but as someone who has studied these matters for a long time, this is all very believable. So today what has been described as a dangerous mob in right-wing media here in the US may very soon become a tragic humanitarian disaster as they run out of food and shelter far away from home.

What has been most extraordinary about this unfolding tragedy is the reaction of the President of the United States. Egged on by hysterical right-wing media, the President himself became hysterical and declared this far-away march of some of the hemisphere’s poorest people a national security emergency for the United States of America. To make it all the more threatening, the President claimed, without evidence, that terrorists and violent gang members had joined the caravan and were intending to use it to sneak into the United States (today he admitted he made up the Middle Easterner thing). The President threatened to cut off aid to the countries of the region if this Caravan kept going. The aid he was referring to largely goes to prevent further erosion of regional security so the President was essentially threatening to force the region into even greater chaos and weakening our own security along the way. Remarkably the Secretary of State and the Vice President echoed these claims in the last 24 hours. And there we had it — the most powerful nation in the world, the winners of World Wars and Cold Wars, was now officially terrified and mobilizing its military, financial, diplomatic, and homeland security resources to repel an “invasion” of a few thousand ragged, unarmed Central Americans far away from the US homeland and weeks away from arriving at the border itself. It has felt far more Monty Python than John Wayne.

Flows of authorized immigrants into US fraction of what it was — system has capacity to manage surges

For context, it has to be noted that the flow of unauthorized immigrants into the United States is a fraction of what it was 10–15 years ago, and even this year’s flow has been within recent norms. The President had already declared a national emergency earlier this year and added National Guard troops and military judges to the border region to help provide additional capacity to manage what was in fact a small and not historically significant increase in border arrivals. So the boy had cried wolf once, and when the flow didn’t decrease, the Administration moved on to its infamous “zero tolerance,” kids in cages strategy; a strategy voided by federal courts a few months ago. Not a whole lot of winning for the President on his immigration strategy these last two years.

2018 inline with previous years — not a crisis

So while this whole Caravan thing both feels and is absurd, it is now part of the political discourse in these closing days of the 2018 elections and Democrats need to make clear where they stand. As an old Clinton War Room guy I firmly believe that any attack must be challenged or it sticks. Democrats are being attacked daily by the President for something they have not done, and need to challenge both the President’s inaccurate story about immigration and its impact on America, and the President’s misguided policies to address an “immigration crisis” which never existed. So, in short, I think Democratic leaders should do three things:

Address Worsening Conditions in Central America — Democrats should make clear they know that the worsening economic and security situation in Central America is a problem which needs to be addressed by the next Congress. Unauthorized flows like the Caravan are wrong, and we need to find a way to keep people at home and to honor the legal immigration system in place today. Whatever plan we come up with will have be developed with our Southern neighbors and both parties and chambers in Congress. It will take work over many months to do something lasting and effective. Fox fueled fiats from an ill-informed President are making finding lasting solutions far harder, not easier.

Put Comprehensive Immigration Reform back on the table — Democrats should reaffirm their commitment to the bi-partisan and thoughtful McCain/Kennedy, Gang of 8 framework and offer to enter into talks with the President and the Republicans about a bi-partisan reform package. They should be open to reducing the # of green cards issued for a time if we can legalize millions of undocumented immigrants already living and working here.

Offer Ideas for Smart, Effective and Humane Reform Of Our Immigration Enforcement System — At a rhetorical and policy level, Democrats have to be more forceful in talking about how to make border and immigration enforcement better, more effective, and more humane. In our book President Obama did a far better job at managing our border and domestic enforcement system than many have given him credit for. DHS and ICE can certainly be improved, but talks of abolishing it are silly and should be rejected by responsible leaders in the days ahead. Creating a path for legalization — and I hope citizenship — for the 11m already here require a big rethink of our entire enforcement system.

So even if the Caravan disperses in the coming days, and this “urgent threat” is removed from the political debate, the underlying issues raised by the Caravan remain. The immigration status quo is unacceptable, and has been for a long time. Democrats have been trying to improve and modernize our approach to immigration, and address many of the problems that have surfaced here, for 13 years. We passed smart bi-partisan bills through the Senate twice, only to have them blocked each time by a reactionary Republican House leadership. If the Democrats control the House next year we will have the opportunity to do something truly meaningful on immigration; something which can grow our economy, cut a spiraling deficit, and humanely resolve one of the most contentious political issues in the nation today. The President sure does seem to want to do something — let’s challenge him to use his vaunted deal making skills and do right by the American people and our close neighbors to the South. It is time now.