WASHINGTON -- The “caravan” of asylum-seeking migrants that has finally arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border is a test of American character and purpose -- a test that President Trump wants us to fail.
I put caravan in quotation marks because the group that reached Tijuana hardly qualifies for the term. Just a few dozen would-be entrants presented themselves at the Port of San Ysidro on Sunday -- only to be told that U.S. immigration officials were too busy to attend to them. Another several hundred were reported to be in the general area, waiting their turn to attempt to cross the border.
Trump has spoken of these people as if they were some kind of rampaging horde. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has accused them of “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system.” The truth is that this sort of thing happens every year: Would-be migrants seek safety in numbers as they make the long and perilous trek north through Mexico.
Sessions probably understands this context; Trump probably doesn’t. But I believe both are sincere in their desire to stanch the flow of Latino immigration -- not, I strongly suspect, because of drugs or crime, but because they loathe the demographic and cultural change that is taking place.
While he and his administration were being appropriately roasted at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on Saturday evening, Trump was at a rally in Michigan claiming that our immigration laws are “corrupt ... so corrupt” and that the motives of those who defend our nation’s traditional role as a haven for asylum-seekers are political. “The Democrats actually feel, and they are probably right, that all of these people that are pouring across are going to vote for Democrats, they’re not going to vote for Republicans.”
They’re not going to vote for anybody, of course, since they’re not citizens. Truth doesn’t matter to Trump. But you knew that.
What seems to really drive the president crazy is that the United States remains a haven for those fleeing persecution. Trump laid out his complaint Saturday: “If a person puts their foot over the line, we have to take them into our country, we have to register them. We then have to ask them a couple of questions. Lawyers are telling them what to say. How unsafe they are. And once they say that, we have to let them go, to come back to court in like a year. Only one problem: they don’t come back, OK. That’s the end. Welcome to the United States.”
You will have noticed that missing from Trump’s rant is any sense of morality or mission.
There is a reason why the law makes provision for those seeking asylum. In 1939, Congress rejected a bill that would have admitted 20,000 German Jewish children. Later that year, authorities refused to allow the St. Louis, a ship carrying about 900 German Jews, to dock in Miami; the Coast Guard sent out patrol boats to warn the ship away. The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, and 254 of its passengers later perished in the Holocaust.
That shameful history led to changes in immigration policy that prohibit rejecting claims of asylum out of hand. The bar is high, but many of the Central American asylum-seekers probably clear it.
In El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the major threat comes from rampant gang violence. Boys are often offered a stark choice: Join a gang or be killed. Girls are threatened with rape. It is easy to say this is a problem that local elected officials and police ought to solve, but government institutions are weak and corruption is widespread. What choice does a family under imminent threat have but to flee? What would you do?
It is of course true that not every Central American who asks for asylum truly merits it. That’s why each case is examined and evaluated, taking all the time needed to reach a proper determination -- which is how the migrants now at the border must be handled, despite what Trump and Sessions might prefer.
To close our eyes and hearts to legitimate claims of persecution would be to repeat the shameful and tragic mistakes of the World War II era. If the subjects of Trump’s demagoguery were summarily denied entry, as he apparently would like, most would be forced to go home and some would be killed. That would be a terrible stain on the nation’s conscience.
I’m tempted to add that it would be a stain on Trump’s conscience as well, but it’s not clear that he has one.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.