Democrats are making a mistake in their response to the caravan

Some of the things Trump has said about the caravan of migrants making its way toward the U.S. border aren’t true. For instance, this bit about unknown Middle Easterners being mixed in which he tweeted yesterday:

That apparently started from this story at Judicial Watch which made its way to other sites and eventually was mentioned on Fox and Friends. Is it possible terrorists could infiltrate a large wave of migrants? Sure, it’s possible. Is there any evidence there are ISIS members in the caravan now? Not that I’ve seen.

But while Democrats are eager to frame this as a story about Trump’s “zero-sum xenophobic populist nationalism” they are making a mistake by choosing to downplay the problem the caravan represents. It’s the same mistake they made with regard to ICE earlier this year. Most Americans didn’t like family separation at the border and Trump himself turned against it. But Democrats took that winning issue and began demanding America abolish ICE. That seemed extreme, even to some Democrats.

Today, a couple of opinion pieces—one at the Atlantic and one at the NY Times—argue that Democrats are once again getting carried away with their anti-Trump zeal and not thinking this through when it comes to the caravan. At the Times, David Leonhardt writes (emphasis mine):

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 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.

Over at the Atlantic David Frum makes essentially the same point. Democrats are falling into a trap, guided by their desire to oppose anything Trump says by saying the opposite, even if the opposite is crazy:

In the Democrats’ liberal base, the mood toward the caravan is positively sympathetic. The caravan’s slogan, “People without borders,” chimes with the rising sentiment among liberals that border-enforcement is inherently illegitimate, and usually racist, too.

But understand what’s at stake: The theory behind the caravans—this latest, and its smaller predecessors over the past 15 years—is that Central Americans have valid asylum claims in the United States because of the pervasive underemployment and gang-violence problems in their countries. If that claim is true, that is a claim shared not only among the thousands in the current caravan, but the millions back home. A 2013 Pew survey found that 58 percent of Salvadorans would move to the United States if they could. The seven countries of Central America together have a population of some 45 million, or about the same as Mexico’s back in 1970, when the mass migration from that nation began…

For Trump’s opponents, the caravan represents a trap. Has Trump’s radical nativism so counter-radicalized them that they have internalized the caravan message against any border enforcement at all?

Frum concludes: “If liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals will not do.” That’s overstating it a bit but I think he’s basically right. People aren’t ready for an Angela Merkel style free-for-all like the one in Germany. Well, some people on the left may be, but the majority are not. A smarter response to the caravan, for Democrats, would be to stake out a middle ground between closed borders and no borders. But Democrats often aren’t very smart.

Meanwhile, the media, also partly motivated by a desire to undermine Trump, is clearly eager to frame the caravan as a feel-good story rather than noting that economic migration is not grounds for an asylum claim. That means most of these people, while they have real economic problems, will only have one option to solve those problems once they reach the U.S. border: becoming illegal immigrants. And as this notorious xenophobe once said (back in 2005), that’s just not acceptable:

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