NARRATOR: It wasn’t a bluff. Donald Trump had threatened to send the military to close the border when the immigrant “caravan” first formed in Honduras and Guatemala. Earlier this morning, he reiterated his warning:
Brandon Judd of the National Border Patrol Council is right when he says on @foxandfriends that the Democrat inspired laws make it tough for us to stop people at the Border. MUST BE CHANDED, but I am bringing out the military for this National Emergency. They will be stopped!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 25, 2018
Sure enough, the order went out — although for the moment, it doesn’t exactly look like a militarization of the border:
Hundreds of U.S. troops are set to make their way to the southern border to help Homeland Security and the National Guard as a caravan with thousands of migrants moves north, a U.S. official confirmed to Fox News on Thursday.
The official said roughly 800 soldiers will be sent to the area to offer “logistical support,” including providing tents and vehicles.
It’s not immediately clear which units are being tasked with the mission as details are still being finalized.
Defense Secretary James Mattis could sign the deployment orders as soon as today.
Eight hundred soldiers? The southern border between the US and Mexico runs for 1,954 miles. That works out to one soldier every 2.5 miles or so, which isn’t exactly an impassable barrier. For comparison, the Punitive Expedition a century ago involved 10,000 troops under General John Pershing to stop the forces of Pancho Villa from raiding American towns. Villa at the time had about 500 men at arms under his command, although Pershing eventually ran up against regular Mexican forces of about 22,000. Pershing managed to put a stop to the raids after almost a year in the field, but he never succeeded in capturing Villa.
The Border Patrol has just under 20,000 agents already, of course, but they’re also stretched across nearly 2,000 miles of border, too. An additional 800 military personnel — added to the 2100 National Guard soldiers already deployed to the border — will certainly help free some of those up from logistical duties to help with enforcement. However, it’s not a game changer, or nearly enough to close the border.
As a demonstration of political will, however, it will suffice, at least in the short run. Trump understands that voters expect action from a chief executive, and thus he’s giving them what they want. Trump wants to show that he takes border control seriously, and to demonstrate that Democrats don’t. A president has lots of opportunities to make that argument, and it helps when Democrats try to ignore the problem altogether.
David Leonhardt argued in the New York Times yesterday that Democrats are leaving that door wide open by failing to address the issues the caravans raise:
For the most part, Democrats have tried to avoid the issue. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leaders in Congress, have essentially urged their colleagues to ignore it. “The president is desperate to change the subject from health care to immigration because he knows that health care is the number one issue Americans care about,” they said in a statement over the weekend. “Democrats are focused like a laser on health care and will not be diverted.”
This strikes me as wishful thinking. The caravan is a huge story. It led the NBC Nightly News broadcast yesterday, to take one example. Politicians in the final two weeks of a campaign can’t persuade people to ignore a huge story.
The smarter approach for Democrats would be a few simple statements of the obvious, meant to display both realism and decency, along the lines of: This is a country of laws. We are not going to admit thousands of undocumented immigrants traveling in a caravan. We do not have open borders. But we are and have always been a country of compassion as well, and we are working with Mexican authorities to protect the safety of these men, women and children.
The problem with ignoring the issue is that it plays into the Republicans’ midterm strategy. It makes Democrats sound squishy and insecure on immigration. It makes it sound as if Democrats aren’t really sure whether they believe that this country should have immigration laws.
That’s a gift to Republicans. It offers a reason for some dissatisfied Trump voters from 2016 to forget about their dissatisfaction and vote Republican again this year.
Why don’t Democrats follow Leonhardt’s advice? Maybe it’s because Democrats really have become the party of open borders, and they have every intention of admitting the caravan. That’s certainly been the drift of their policies over the last few years, refusing to limit DACA to current recipients in exchange for normalizing them, and refusing to build a wall that Congress authorized on a bipartisan vote in 2006.
So yes, it’s a gift to Republicans. And Trump is taking advantage of it, but in the least provocative way possible. At this scale, it’s no game-changer.