Why Trump’s military response to a “migrant caravan” is so scary

The president activated the National Guard after news reports of 1,000 people from Honduras travelling towards the US.

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In an ominous show of military strength, President Donald Trump on Wednesday directed the US department of defence to deploy national guard troops to the US-Mexico border – a decision seemingly based on a segment on his favourite Fox News TV show.

Trump, who made the issue of immigration from Mexico the linchpin of his campaign, made the move in response to news of a “caravan” of migrants, mainly fleeing gang violence in Honduras, who have been walking through Mexico on their way to the US border.

The caravan was organised by a group named Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which means “People Without Borders”. It has become an annual part-protest, part-mass migration march, although this year, the fifth time it has occurred, it is much bigger than the ever before. More than 1,000 migrants from Honduras, many of them fleeing gang violence, form the main body of the caravan, though others have reportedly joined as the march made its way north through Mexico toward the United States. 

When the caravan arrives at the border the marchers plan to request asylum in the United States, Alex Mensing, one of the organisers, told CNN.

The president appears to have learned about the caravan from a report on Sunday on Fox & Friends, the Fox News morning TV show which has become one of his primary sources of information. Trump habitually does not read his briefing documents and seems largely uninterested in intelligence reports from even his closest advisers, preferring the obsequious banality of Fox News’s premiere morning show.

Many of Trump’s pronouncements can often be directly traced to segments which run on the Fox & Friends, and he often tweets directly about the showwhile watching it, leading the New York Times to declare it the “most powerful TV show in America”.

On the Sunday morning show, the caravan was described as as an “army of migrants marching to America”. In a later segment, which featured an interview with the leader of the border patrol union, Fox & Friends presenter Brian Kilmeade said: “they’re marching to the border because they want in, and they want to make a statement.”

Trump’s first tweet mentioning the caravan came in less than an hour:

The president returned to the theme throughout the week with increasing vitriol. “Honduras, Mexico and many other countries that the US is very generous to, sends many of their people to our country through our WEAK IMMIGRATION POLICIES. Caravans are heading here,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, he returned to the theme. “The big Caravan of People from Honduras, now coming across Mexico and heading to our ‘Weak Laws’ Border, had better be stopped before it gets there,” the president tweeted, adding later, “WE WILL PROTECT OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!”

Just hours later, the president signed a memorandum directing the US secretary of defence, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, to activate national guard personnel to assist the department of homeland security in securing the border “and taking other necessary actions to stop the flow of deadly drugs and other contraband, gang members and other criminals, and illegal aliens into this country,” according to the memo.

The national guard are America's reserve military force; they are often activated in response to natural disasters or civil unrest. Sending them to the border is not itself an unprecedented move; both previous presidents, Barack Obama and George W Bush, used the national guard to shore up border security during their presidencies. In 2010, Obama ordered 1,200 national guard troops to the border, though their deployment was later scaled back in favour of aerial surveillance.

But Trump’s open-ended order, which gives the department of defence wide discretion to take any “necessary action”, comes at a time when tensions at America’s southern border are sky-high. His core campaign promise, which defined his presidential run, was to build “a big beautiful wall” along the border, which he claimed – ridiculously – that Mexico would pay for. He has also threatened to cut off US aid to Honduras in response to the caravan.

This is the fifth year the group has organised the march, but in previous years the caravans were much smaller. In 2017, 78 marchers eventually reached the US and requested asylum; of those, only three have so far had their application granted, according to CNN. Others have either been deported or remain in immigration detention centres. The Mexican government has offered temporary visas to the most vulnerable among them, but many say they plan to continue toward the US.

With armed military personnel being deployed along the border, the potential for things to get ugly has markedly increased.

Nicky Woolf was the launch editor for New Statesman America and has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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