A photo of a group of migrants line up to receive food donations in a makeshift camp in Juchitan, Mexico, October 31, 2018
A group of migrants line up to receive food donations in a makeshift camp in Juchitan, Mexico. Hannah McKay/Reuters

Why do political leaders portray asylum seekers and refugees as an invading army? Because it’s very effective.

The story of the Central American caravan that has so transfixed President Donald Trump and the conservative U.S. media in recent days is, in many ways, a typical story of migration: It has happened before and it will happen again.

But the response to this group of asylum seekers that is slowly making its way from Honduras through Mexico has been extraordinary. The U.S. president has been tweeting about it since early October, calling the caravan ”an invasion”of “gang members” and “unknown Middle Easterners” (synonymous, in his mind, to terrorists, it appears) that may be supported by Democratic donor George Soros, though he also admits he has no proof of any of these claims. He has considered blocking them at the Southern border, citing national security reasons (as he did with the travel ban). And he has ordered more than 5,000 troops to the border—and is now talking about tripling that. In a much-hyped speech on Thursday, Trump also said his administration was putting finishing touches on a policy to keep this and other caravaners from seeking asylum—even suggesting that he may authorize U.S. troops to fire at them.

“We have a lot of tents,” Trump said in a press conference. “We’re holding them right there. We’re not letting them into our country.”

The menace that has triggered this show of force is an unarmed group of migrants—at least half of whom are women and children—several hundred miles away. Most are attempting to flee violence and escape poverty in Central America; a smaller subset are people who have been previously deported from the U.S., and want to return to their families in America. Such migrant caravans aren’t new: In the past, activists from Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a group that has been providing humanitarian aide and legal help to migrants for 15 years, have assembled these groups in order to ensure safer passage to the U.S. and draw attention to the conditions they face in their home countries.

This one started in San Pedro Sula—a Honduran city known for its gang violence and poverty—with around 160 or so people. Over the journey through Guatemala to Mexico, the group swelled to over a 1,000. Then, to the surprise of the organizers, to 7,000. During the day, they walked for miles and hitchhiked on pickup trucks, passing through small towns where locals assist with food, water, and medical help. The caravan’s journey has faced resistance; at the Guatemala-Mexico border, helicopters hovered overhead, and federal police came prepared to deploy pepper spray. A portion pushed through. But as the troupe snakes through Mexico, their numbers have dwindled. The U.S. government itself reportedly estimates that by the time the caravan gets to the U.S. border, only a small percentage would remain. Once they get to a port of entry, they have the right to request asylum. That is the legal process.

There is, in other words, no migration crisis afoot. There is, however, an election, and the caravan has provided a TV-friendly way to illustrate Trump’s issue of choice: his nativist conviction that immigrants represent the gravest threat to the nation. Drumming up fear about the caravan might push his supporters to the polls.

In other conveniently timed news, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has suddenly started releasing immigrant detainees in the U.S. in large numbers—and also refusing to help them connect with relatives or provide transportation. As shelters get overwhelmed, advocates worry that groups of released migrants will become homeless, stoking local fears of migrants thronging the streets. “President Donald Trump [is] using the border and immigrants as political pawns,” Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, told Dallas News. “But this is what energizes his base and he’s going back to his favorite playbook.” ICE has cited lack of capacity for this decision. (The president has threatened time and again that the administration will stop releasing migrants while their asylum legal cases are being processed.)

This is a common and, unfortunately, often effective political strategy, says Kelly Greenhill, a professor of international relations at Tufts University and the author of Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy. The book details the myriad ways in which “threat entrepreneurs”—governments, politicians, and non-state actors around the world—manipulate or construct mass migrations for political gain. They fashion a threat, then present themselves as the solution.

“This unconventional brand of coercion has been attempted more than 70 times since the advent of the 1951 Refugee Convention alone, that is, at least one per year on average …” Greenhill wrote in the European Law Journal following the surge of refugees to Europe in 2015. “Moreover, in approximately three-quarters of all identified cases, coercers have succeeded in achieving at least some of their objectives; approximately 57 percent of the time, they have achieved most if not all of their stated objectives.”

A family of migrants makes their to Matias Romero from Juchitan in Mexico. (Hannah Mckay/Reuters)

Historians trace the origins of today’s refugee crisis from Central America to the Cold War policies of President Ronald Reagan. The rhetoric has parallels too. In 1983, Reagan warned Americans that if they rejected his plan to send military and economic aid to Central America, “a tidal wave of refugees” would come crashing onto the borders. “This time they’ll be ‘feet people’ and not ‘boat people’ —swarming into our country,” he said at the time. More recently, Barack Obama and David Cameron have also used words like “waves” and “swarms” to suggest vast numbers of outsiders coming ashore, overwhelming American towns and cities.

In an interview with Public Radio International, Professor Gregory Lee at the University of Lyon called this narrative of a nation being consumed by refugees the “inundation” metaphor. His own research explores its usage in the context of immigration restrictions on Asians in the late 19th and early 20th century. The passage of these laws required the portrayal of Asians as the unassimilable other—a group that would drain American society and pose existential threats to its culture. Hence, the racist, dehumanizing terms “yellow peril” and “Asiatic horde.” Fast forward to post-9/11 America, and the same tropes persist for Muslim and Arabs living in the U.S.

Such language and ideas, and other types of disinformation, catch on when they are repeated. By restating them—even in the course of clarifying or correcting them—the media can amplify them.

“The most effective threat-based influence campaigns virtually always include involvement by the media, whether it’s intentional, or because journalists are inadvertently snookered into it,” Greenhill told me. “Since repetition matters so materially in the uptake of rumors, conspiracy theories, and other forms of extra-factual information, when the media repeats [it]—even when they do so to try to debunk it—its repetition inadvertently increases the perceived credibility and veracity.”

Right-wing pundits have dutifully mirrored (and inspired) the president’s language, and then added some of their own tall tales to the mix. But they’re not the only ones who are complicit in weaponizing a mass movement of desperate families. In a tweet it later deleted, the Associated Press called the caravan “a ragged, growing army.” Here at The Atlantic, David Frum argued that the caravan posed a “challenge to the integrity of U.S. borders.”

These narratives distort how migration takes place—and how it’s taking place right now. Once flows of migration have been established—as they were from Central America decades ago—they tend to persist over time. A variety of complex “push” and “pull” factors determine how migration ebbs and flows. At the current moment, gang violence seems to be the dominant factor driving Central Americans to leave. And although the U.S.-Mexico border has increasingly militarized in the last few decades, such distant barriers don’t necessarily deter people who are desperate to get their families out of harm’s way.

Indeed, the need to get out is so urgent for some, they don’t even think about what might happen in the longer term—when they arrive in America. “I was going to have to leave the country anyway,” Jandy Reyes, a 23-year-old mother in the caravan whose family was terrorized by local gangsters, told The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer. “Then I saw this about the caravan and figured I’d just do it now.”

But images stick, even if they do little to explain what’s really behind the phenomenon. The president’s narrative may be a nativist fantasy, but it has certainly succeeded in scaring people. Republican voters in Minnesota fear that migrants will “take over” their summer homes near the border. Newsweek reports that U.S. troops are bracing to defend themselves not against migrants but against vigilante armed militia who have gathered at spots along the border.

These fears aren’t just abstract, they can translate into real tragedy. As Adam Serwer noted in The Atlantic, it was Trump’s caravan rhetoric that helped drive Robert Bowers, the gunman who opened fire at a Pittsburgh synagogue last week. In his mind, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HAIS), which assists refugees, was guilty for bringing “invaders” to his country.

When it comes to migration, Americans across the political aisle share misconceptions. Simply correcting them will not be enough. “What those who seek to oppose Trump’s migration policies need is a compelling narrative of their own,” Greenhill writes in Foreign Affairs, “one that takes voter concerns seriously, defining problems responsibly and offering comprehensible and attainable solutions.“

In other words, Americans need to start hearing other stories about the people who are trying to save their families’ lives. This caravan is definitely an expression of a complicated, cross-border set of policies—but it doesn’t represent a “crisis.” Not yet, anyway. But global migration is set to increase with climate change; it may require a more urgent shift in how we think about—and regulate—the movement of people across borders.

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