Why you should care
Because Donald Trump’s proposed border shutdown brings back memories of the travel ban and the 2014 midterms.
The final stretch into President Donald Trump’s first midterm election is dripping with fear. Thousands of migrants are making their way north from Honduras in an attempt to seek asylum in the United States based on fears of what they face at home. Trump is dropping hints that he will shut the door in their faces because the group constitutes a national emergency. A man in Florida is accused of terrorizing Democrats with pipe bombs. An anti-Semite in Pittsburgh, who flamed conspiracy theories about the caravan on social media, stands accused of carrying out one of the worst attacks on Jews in U.S. history.
Could this get even more turbulent?
Press reports indicate Trump could move to close down the southern border entirely by executive order — one week before Election Day — in an effort to stop the caravan. The American Civil Liberties Union is already licking its chops in anticipation of a lawsuit. Under American law, a migrant, whether he shows up at a normal port of entry or crosses illegally, can request asylum if he has “credible fear” of returning to his home country. Critics consider this a Texas-sized loophole in immigration law, and the Trump administration wants to toughen asylum rules.
A total border shutdown would be a vast escalation …
While the threat from these particular migrants is overhyped — Trump had to backtrack and admit there is no evidence of “Middle Easterners” in the group, as he claimed earlier — it’s worth talking about how our system can improve. While border apprehensions are down considerably from the mid-2000s, overall “credible fear” asylum claims have surged 1,700 percent in a decade.
From 2014-2016, more people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala applied for asylum than in the previous 17 years combined, according to Department of Homeland Security data. (Still, the single biggest country of origin for asylum seekers in 2016 was China, with 16,494.) Wait times can stretch on for years before cases are resolved, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in January reported a backlog of 311,000 asylum cases. In July, the Trump administration issued legal guidance designed to get tougher on people who might be trying to game the system: “An officer should consider whether the applicant demonstrated ulterior motives for the illegal entry that are inconsistent with a valid asylum claim,” it states.
A total border shutdown would be a vast escalation that in some ways would mirror his January 2017 executive order banning anyone from seven Muslim-majority countries from coming to the United States. The order was eventually upheld as lawful by the Supreme Court, after it was revised, but its haphazard implementation was a flashpoint of activism on the left, with activists packing airports as people were detained.
Then, as now, Trump is warning of an “emergency.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis on Friday approved a request to send an unspecified number of active duty military troops to the border. They’re not going to be standing at the Rio Grande with rifles raised. Customs and Border Patrol deals with apprehending people who cross illegally. The troops — not unlike the 2,000 National Guard reinforcements Trump sent in the spring — will offer logistical support to Homeland Security officers. But if it looks like preparing for an invasion, all the better.
The travel ban is one piece of context for all this. The other is the 2014 elections. That year, in the final weeks before the midterms, the Ebola scare was front and center, with debates over a ban on visitors from West Africa. Some Republicans warned that Ebola carriers or ISIS terrorists could come in over the southern border, hence the need for tougher immigration laws. Republicans took over the Senate that year, an edge they hold to this day.
Pipe bombs targeting Democrats and Trump antagonists have been the top story across the land this week, and the apprehension of the suspect — a Florida man and Trump supporter named Cesar Sayoc — has sparked a new round of discussion about the president’s rhetorical excess. Saturday’s horrific mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh is launching another gun control debate and a debate about anti-Semitism. Trump has openly mused that he’d prefer the media coverage to focus on something else. He could well get his wish.