As I watch and read about the caravan from Central America making its way northward, I’m reminded of a poem I had to memorize in high school called the “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Lord Alfred Tennyson. “Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell,” describing eloquently what the migrants from Honduras and neighboring countries must be willing to endure in order to make it to America’s borders.
A few days ago, President Trump’s rhetoric ignited attitudes against these desperate men, women, seniors and children when he warned that “criminals and Middle Easterners are mixed in” with them and calling it a situation created by the Democrats. These are blatant misrepresentations that can do no good other than stoke nationalist anxiety against all immigrants.
The President’s derelict direction was further ratified when the Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen responded to a Fox News question about border troop deployment with “We do not have any intention right now to shoot at people, but they will be apprehended.” Right now?
Meanwhile, the president is sending 5,200 troops to the southwest border and with the 2,000 National Guard members already there, this “will exceed the combined U.S. military footprint in Iraq and Syria,” reported the Wall Street Journal.
According to reports, the young, middle-aged and old from Central America press on with shoes that are falling apart and deprivation lining their faces.
With the November midterm elections around the corner, the central American migrant caravan could well become a convenient lightning rod for criticism during a tense political standoff. In the broader context, even within party lines, immigration remains a charged issue.
“My mother had the courage to cross the border and work her fingers to the bone to put a roof over my head,” said California State Senator Kevin de Leon during an October 17 debate with Senator Dianne Feinstein hosted by Public Policy Institute of California at their downtown San Francisco office. De Leon is challenging Feinstein’s senate seat in the November elections.
Bemoaning the “lack of action” in Washington, de Leon pointed a finger at Feinstein for voting for the creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the body that apprehends “mothers and fathers selling fruit on the streets every single day.”
Feinstein, a seasoned politician, countered by touting her experience with the Judiciary Committee on immigration, especially the authoring of a bill that would prevent the separation of children from their parents. “We need to look at our immigration system and see that it is humane and fair and is able to be carried out without chaos and without the separation of children from their parents,” Feinstein said.
It was hardly a distinguishing debate, yet it brought up the issue of how we ought to be talking and thinking about immigration. Certainly not by deploying words like “shoot at” nor by criminalizing asylum seekers and militarizing our borders.
Since most migrants are leaving due to economic hardship or violence in their home countries, the U.S. and Central American governments should be working together to develop strategies on how to vitalize their economies in order to de-motivate economic migrations. Instead, the U.S. is threatening to cut off aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. “Cutting aid to countries people are fleeing will only worsen the conditions that displaced those people in the first place. Stop the hysterical, shortsighted rhetoric,” tweeted Human Rights Watch on October 22.
Vivian Salama of the WSJ reports that the 2007 and 2010 border troop deployment cost a combined $1.35 billion. And as a point of comparison, for the fiscal year starting in October, the U.S. plans to invest $65.7 million in Honduras. The billions of dollars to be spent in troop amassment at the borders could well be spent more judiciously to prevent future migrations.
On the San Francisco Guatemalan Embassy’s website, the first lady of Guatemala, Patricia Marroquín De Morales, implores Central American people to not risk the perils of the migration to the United States. “I am aware of the adversities we face in each Central American country,” she declares, “but we must privilege the human lives of our children because soon they will be the leaders of our nations.” She misses the point that parents believe they are giving their children hope for the future by migrating to a better, safer place; a place with better opportunities.
“Boldly they rode and well … Into the mouth of hell,” continues Tennyson’s poem. The migrants keep moving resolutely onward with perhaps little but vague knowledge of what’s in store for them at the borders of the country they believe to be the panacea to all ills.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan