‘And ... cut!”
You could almost hear the director calling an end to the scene Sunday after Border Patrol agents fired tear gas across the Mexican border in San Ysidro, California, scattering a crowd of Central American migrants.
This scene — poor people charging America’s fence and being repelled by U.S. force — has been almost inevitable since President Trump took office. His rhetoric and policies have been of hype and confrontation, when a boring, un-televisable pragmatism could have served better. Really, it’s surprising the clash took this long to materialize.
But it was important from the Trumpian world view that this scene happen. We will undoubtedly see it replayed soon, perhaps in real life but definitely in political commercials, as evidence that America is under invasion by Third World hordes. In fact, this is a dynamic that former Trump adviser and filmmaker Steve Bannon has for years foreseen, fascinated as he has been by a French book called “The Camp of the Saints” that imagined hundreds of thousands of Indian migrants swarming Europe.
Now the scenes that the filmmaker imagined have happened, and the footage has been shot. Maybe now we can stop the hype, let the normally heavy, legal, cross-border traffic continue its Christmas-season crawl and move on to a more practical approach to the wave of asylum-seekers from Central America.
A problem-solving approach, perhaps, like the one that hundreds of Tucsonans have taken since the asylum-seeking Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans started surging north. It was in evidence Tuesday when I visited Rincon Congregational Church U.C.C., the latest in a rotation of local churches to turn their buildings into shelters for people handed off by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The asylum-seeking families, often fresh from a few days in a Customs and Border Protection jail cell, usually stay for a couple of days in the church before heading out by bus to stay with a sponsor somewhere else in the country.
The Rev. Delle McCormick told me her congregation agreed in early October to open the church sanctuary and adjacent rooms to up to 34 asylum-seekers, taking over from the Saint Pius X Catholic community, then handing off to another church.
“We had planned on doing this for two weeks, but the members wanted to continue,” she said.
Six weeks later, it’s just winding down. And when ICE officials called Tuesday to see if they could take some more people, Rincon couldn’t resist taking 10 more, McCormick said. The alternative was for them to wait in the bus station.
“I’ve never seen such a cross-section come together to do something good,” McCormick said. “I’ve been amazed every day by people’s willingness to show up.”
On Tuesday, a member of the Tucson Community Tennis Program brought a dozen tennis rackets, balls and a portable net. Kids who had just been detained for a week at the DeConcini port of entry in Nogales were trying to hit the ball over the net under a beautiful Tucson sun.
We can’t expect the federal government to “love them up” the way McCormick says the 210 volunteers cycling through her church have, but we can expect them to look at a problem, like a caravan of Central Americans going to the border, and think more pragmatically than to say, “Let’s send in the troops.”
This wave of migrants is nowhere near unprecedented. We remain in a historic lull in illegal border crossings that compares to the 1970s. The main difference from the much larger wave of illegal border crossers in the first decade of the century is that most of these people are from Central America, not Mexico, and many of them are requesting asylum rather than trying to sneak into the country and disappear.
In practice, most Central Americans who request asylum are judged to have a “credible fear” of returning to their home country, so they are admitted for their claims to be processed. Then most people show up for court hearings, which may take two years to be completed. And in the end, most are denied asylum.
It’s a legally mandated process that could be hastened by a massive deployment of resources to ICE and the immigration courts. And in the end, since most of these applicants are denied asylum, it could send a message of caution back to Central America.
But instead of seeing the migrant caravan and staffing up to process a wave of asylum-seekers, we brought in the brute force of an Army deployment, at an anticipated cost of $200 million to $300 million. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that conducts intake on those who request asylum at the ports of entry, did not increase its capacity to do intake of asylum-seekers, a spokesman confirmed to me. Imagine that!
The result was a border bottleneck at Tijuana, with a wait of months just to be processed for those in the caravan who arrived there, said Maureen Meyer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington office of Latin America, a left-leaning research group in D.C. A buildup of frustration among some of the caravan members led to the Sunday march by, perhaps, 500 out of the 5,000 in Tijuana, which then led to a few climbing the fence and throwing rocks, which led to the tear gas and the indispensable video.
“They’re making it as hard as they can for people to request asylum at the U.S. ports of entry,” Meyer told me. “At the same time, they’re trying to push Mexico to keep more and more people on their side of the border.”
The Trump administration is also trying to make it illegal to request asylum after crossing the border between ports of entry. This is against the law, though, the courts have held. That means that we should not be surprised if some of the caravan members gradually find their way into the desert, where they can more efficiently cross the line and present themselves to Border Patrol agents for arrest and an asylum request.
This probably will not create dramatic video like what we saw Sunday in San Ysidro. But that incident was inevitable once the administration chose a dramatic, force-based approach to the wave of Central American asylum-seekers. We probably could have avoided that, though, by simply pouring resources into a system that processes asylum-seekers too slowly but, in the end, usually rejects them.