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The migrant caravan forced Trump to admit he'd sacrifice economic prosperity to politically exploit racism

To keep out a handful of Central American asylum seekers, the president has said he'd wreak havoc on the U.S. economy.
Image: Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump rallies with supporters in a hangar at Missoula International Airport in Missoula, Montana, on Oct. 18, 2018.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

On Thursday, President Trump threatened in a series of tweets to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border unless a yearly caravan of Honduran migrants heading up north through Mexico turn around before they reach the United States (where they intend to apply for asylum) and head back home.

Let’s assume that he was being serious. What would a closed border actually mean? Essentially, the president threatened the destruction of the American economy to keep out a few asylum seekers.

On any given day, about 1 million people cross the border between the United States and Mexico, both Americans and otherwise (a fact even Trump noted in 2016). They do it for work, for travel, for business and for pleasure. There are close to 20,000 trucks per day to the mix, along with 200,000 cars. And, from January through July of 2018, nearly $290 billion in trade crossed the border via rail or truck — $245 billion by truck — and over 40 percent of that was exports from the U.S. to Mexico.

That’s 365 million people a year, 6.4 million trucks, 78 million cars and more than $450 billion in goods last year. A closed border would eliminate all that and more.

It’s probably safe to say that the Trumpistas have no idea that close to 17 million Mexicans visited the U.S. in 2014, generating about $19 billion for the U.S. economy, or that Mexico is one of the top trading partners with border states like California, Arizona and Texas.

Closing the border would force American economic prosperity to a back seat to American fear, lies and propaganda.

According to the president and his legion of uncritical believers, this country is being invaded from the south, not engaging with nations and peoples who power the American economy. Migrants fleeing violence and political turmoil (essentially caused by years of U.S. foreign policy) are seemingly too scary to allow the larger economic relationship to continue unimpeded.

While his tweets are tasty xenophobic red meat for his base — which he serves up any time he seemingly needs a distraction — Trump continues to show his true colors to the rest of us when it comes to his statements about immigration. It worked when he started his campaign in 2015 (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”) and it’s still a main staple for his supporters.

Never mind that actual data from U.S. Border Patrol from 2017 confirms that migrant crossings and arrests have been at their lowest since 1971. Never mind that the border is already “closed” — that is to say, militarized in many ways to the tune of $3.8 billion per year. Think about this one: In 1990, the annual budget for Border Patrol was $262 million; in 2017, it was close to $4 billion. Never mind that the U.S. is already paying Mexico close to $137 million per year for immigration enforcement.

You cannot bring facts to a Trump tweetstorm.

The reality is that it is easier to whip up fear than to inform the country. It is easier to take the plight of thousands who have legitimate claims for asylum, than to become a country that begins to comes to term with the damage it has created in Central America.

Trump and his supporters don’t care about Central American migrants. Instead of showing legitimate interest in why thousands of Hondurans are leaving their country, they are already waging a campaign to discredit their real suffering. Even if Trump knows, he has no interest in helping his base comprehend that the caravan is a long-term result of an Obama administration-backed coup in Honduras in 2009 that led to a continued crisis of leadership and rampant corruption. The result has been a country with no real opportunities, which is part of why those migrants that Trump wants to shun are leaving their homes despite knowing they're unlikely to receive the asylum they seek.

The Trump caricature of the caravan is fake news — a plot to send new voters screaming to the polls by playing into the same old racialized fears of a lost white America.

A serious discourse about immigration with context, history or actual facts cannot be part of the discussion with Trump because what sells is the image bunch of brown foreigners who are about to terrorize Americans (and vote for Democrats); to have a realistic discussion would require him to lead the country rather than simply sell his voters what he thinks they want to buy. As ridiculous as some of what he says always sounds, as long as Trump tweets it, millions will believe it.

So it’s easier to just say, “Close the border” because that plays well. It gets attention. Challenging xenophobic ideas is more difficult that reinforcing it, especially before a midterm election. In the end, Trump believes that American minds function more to his liking when they are closed — just like the borders, and no matter the cost.