The Trump administration’s use of tear gas at the U.S. border with Mexico over the weekend has rightfully generated outrage. Just as the photo of a 2-year-old Honduran girl crying at the border this summer became a symbol for Donald Trump’s family separation policy, a photo of a terrified mother dragging her screaming twin daughters away from tear gas fired by the U.S. Border Patrol last weekend embodies the latest Trumpian act of cruelty toward desperate refugees. Maria Lila Meza Castro and her five children had made the long and arduous journey from Honduras to the U.S. border with the refugee caravan only to find herself shut out by Trump’s troops and fleeing toxic fumes.
But where many of us see desperate refugees, Trump and his backers see invading hordes. The optics of the violence inflicted on people across the border has had a different effect, depending upon one’s politics. Liberal-minded Americans felt horror and rage at seeing parents and their children choke from the tear gas, while rabid nativists like Fox News’ Tomi Lahren reveled in the severity of Trump’s actions. Lahren tweeted, “Watching the USA FINALLY defend our borders was the HIGHLIGHT of my Thanksgiving weekend.”
The media attention at the border is part of Trump’s plan to highlight to his base just how well he is protecting the U.S. from an invasion of brown people determined to enter the nation. His goal is to dehumanize and demonize.
But thanks to his repeated focus on the border, we are now seeing in graphic detail the dynamics of our immigration enforcement machinery through the camera lenses of journalists and the social media feeds of activists. The photographer who captured the images of Castro and her children running away from tear-gas fumes would likely not have been present at the scene had Trump simply ignored the refugee crisis on his Twitter feed and at his political rallies. Most of us are not aware that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has routinely used tear gas at the U.S.-Mexico border, including under President Barack Obama. CBP responded to Newsweek’s request for information with details about how “its personnel have been using tear gas, or 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (CS), since 2010, deploying the substance a total of 126 times since fiscal year 2012.” The rate of tear-gas use has spiked under Trump, however. CBP also told the media outlet that it “routinely uses” pepper spray. Trump’s strategy to focus on the refugees as a midterm election campaign issue has backfired and inadvertently exposed the federal government’s cruelty toward immigrants.
Trump has tried hard to spin the weekend incident in his favor. On three occasions on Monday alone, the president dug in his heels about news from the border. During a rally in Mississippi for Republican Senate candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith, Trump read a statement that said, “We will not tolerate any form of assault or attack upon our border agents … or any attempt to destroy federal property … or bring chaos and violence to American soil.” Later, speaking to reporters, Trump defended the use of tear gas, saying that Border Patrol forces “were being rushed by some very tough people,” repeating the claim that agents were acting in self-defense against violent invaders. At a roundtable the same day, Trump went as far as accusing people of being “grabbers,” saying people “grab a child because they think they’re going to have a certain status.” The claim is so ludicrous that had it come out of the mouth of any other president before Trump, it would have caused tremendous controversy.
Whether Trump’s base is buying his spin is arguable. After the president hammered on the “migrant caravan” issue for weeks before the midterm elections, going as far as deploying thousands of military troops and barbed wire along the border, Democrats won a large number of seats in the House and flipped an embarrassingly large number of red seats to blue. It might be that the anti-immigrant fearmongering has hit a wall.
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Unfortunately, the Democratic Party is doing its usual job of casting itself as Republican-lite on immigration. Instead of distancing himself from Trump’s widely denounced cruelty, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has decided his party will indeed support the president’s xenophobic plan for a border wall—just not to the extent Trump wants. Rather than the $5 billion in funding that Trump is demanding, Schumer has offered to support a $1.6 billion appropriation—not exactly the type of bold thinking demanded by a blue-wave mandate. Schumer appears to be channeling the same sort of centrist appeasement of right-wing values that makes his party so unpopular.
Perhaps the Democratic leader was taking the advice of New York Times opinion writer Thomas Friedman, who penned a sanctimonious screedcalling on Democrats “to be the adults” and assure the public “that they’re committed to securing our borders.” Friedman also flippantly referred to undocumented immigrants by using the favored right-wing slur of “illegals.” Conservative outlets loved his proposal to build a “high wall with a big gate.”
Schumer and Friedman’s thinking reflects what former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said to The Guardian a week ago when she suggested that in order for European leaders to curb the right-wing populist wave across their continent, they must show that they are “not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support.” She added, “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration, because that is what lit the flame.” Nesrine Malik, a columnist for the paper, responded to the interview, saying aptly, “[T]he former presidential candidate illustrated how a certain brand of centrist politician has no rebuke or response to the far right other than to mimic their tactics.”
Politicians are presenting the public with a set of opposing ideas that they say characterizes the current debate on immigration: “open borders” versus “zero tolerance.” But that is a red herring. It does not address the fact that Central Americans who are fleeing violence in countries like Honduras (which the U.S. has had a hand in destabilizing) are seeking asylum. Asylum seekers have clear and tangible rights under both U.S. and international law. The Trump administration’s year-long effort to change existing asylum laws is a testament to this hard fact. Trump and his colleagues are trying to change the rules of the game because as the rules currently stand, refugees have a right to make a case for asylum within the U.S. (not Mexico).
The thousands of human beings currently camped out in Tijuana in desperate conditions, at the end of a long and arduous journey, are real people. Period. Their humanity should be the starting point of our conversations about immigration and asylum. As this journalist writing for Teen Vogue has done in her profile of seven young people traveling in the caravan, we need to see the faces and hear the stories of migrants’ lives before taking the word of our political leaders. Our responses need to be couched in compassion for our fellow human beings, rather than in political calculations based on the presumed intentions of a racist voting bloc.