Over the past month, a caravan that departed Honduras on foot has grown to include 7,000 people. Many of them had responded to a flyer inviting them to gather at a bus station in northwestern Honduras. “No nos vamos porque queremos, nos expulsa la violencia y la pobreza,” the flyer reads. We’re not leaving because we want to; violence and poverty have forced us out. Honduras is plagued by gang violence and political corruption. So these people fled north.
The migrants are marching more than 1,000 miles through Mexico; currently, they’re approaching Mexico City from the south. The news media has circulated photos of the marchers clogging city streets and highways. The photos are striking. They show a peaceful mobilization of people in street clothes, many of them women and children, embarked on a long and haphazard journey through unfamiliar territory — and toward a perilous political end. In these photos, Trump sees a specter of Western decline. He sees the exact sort people who his contemptuous immigration policies are designed to repel. The U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is dispatching 800 U.S. soldiers to join 2,100 National Guard troops, plus regular patrol forces, stationed at the southern U.S. border. “To those in the Caravan,” Donald Trump tweeted Thursday afternoon, “turnaround, we are not letting people into the United States illegally. Go back to your Country and if you want, apply for citizenship like millions of others are doing!” If the caravan is indeed bound for the U.S.—currently, the itinerary is unclear—the march may culminate with an unprecedented standoff between thousands of immigrants from Central America and thousands of armed forces from the United States.
The caravan’s size and singularity lends it an ominous significance: the marchers are in full force, but what kind of force? Where, exactly, are these people headed? What will they do once they get there? Why should anyone fear the long march’s potential outcomes? Worse yet, why shouldn’t they? Initially, left-wing activists—including the former legislator, Bartolo Fuentes—organized the exodus from Honduras as a rebuke to the country’s president, Juan Orlando Hernández, an embattled conservative leader who has overseen the country’s violent decay. Hernández has tried to recall the caravan, and the Mexican government now hesitates to stop its northbound progress. Inevitably, Donald Trump has identified the caravan as a left-wing mob dispatched to destroy the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump says the caravan’s ranks include “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” though none of the public reports about the marchers support Trump’s characterization.
The migrant caravan is a right-wing fever dream, basically. For decades, conservatives have cited the Roman Empire’s collapse as history’s prohibition against welcoming too many immigrants into a Western superpower. The violent, unstoppable horde of Huns, Slavs, and Germanic tribesmen—the original “barbarians”—crossed the Rhine to ransack Gaul; and so the Honduran caravan traveling north through Mexico might breach, and ruin, the U.S.
It’s impossible to predict how, and where, the caravan ends. Reportedly, the migrants have prepared to splinter along different routes into the U.S., and hundreds of marchers have already declared their intentions to remain in Mexico. There’s a great deal of uncertainty about the caravan that Trump has disregarded in his public pronouncements. The major congressional campaigns—including close races in two border states, Texas and Arizona—haven’t yet seized on the migrant caravan as a pivotal concern. It’s too late, perhaps, to refocus the midterms in their terminal phase. The week is filled with headlines about pipe bombs mailed to the president’s critics, including the billionaire George Soros, whom at least one right-wing figure has accused of sponsoring the caravan. Trump has seized upon the migrant caravan as right-wing counter-programming. “Every time you see a Caravan, or people illegally coming, or attempting to come, into our Country illegally, think of and blame the Democrats for not giving us the votes to change our pathetic Immigration Laws!” Trump tweeted Monday. “Remember the Midterms!”
Trump launched his political career with a fearful call to prohibit immigration from Mexico, and so the president was destined to make this sort of appeal his closing pitch to voters in the final weeks before the midterm elections. Immigration from Mexico is Trump’s signature concern, but his immigration policies have faltered against resistance from Democrats and some Republicans in Congress. In his 21 months as president, Trump has failed to secure Congressional funding for a border wall—the vivid, definitive priority of his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump has, however, threatened to deport legal residents. He has subjected whole families, including young children, to a humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. In the course of humiliating so many immigrants, he has humiliated himself. Repeatedly, Trump has lost face, and lost his footing, in the national immigration debate. Trump’s fear-mongering about the migrant caravan is his last-ditch effort to prove the wisdom of immigration policies before the pivotal midterm elections. If the GOP loses the House, then Trump will lose his ability to dictate the terms of the immigration debate in Congress. Trump’s wall will never get built. Ironically, the border wall would hardly discourage the caravan itself. The 7,000-strong faction doesn’t intend to pour over the northern Mexican border in secret. They might attempt to enter the U.S. as refugees; in which case, the Trump administration will apply its general hostility toward refugees to vehemently oppose members of the caravan entering the U.S.
Trump is stoking the caravan saga at a low point in the national morale. October 2018—the month before the midterm elections—has been one of the most dismal months of Trump’s presidency, filled with violence, diplomatic incompetence, and malaise. The national mood is fearful and sour. The country is uninviting. For all we know, the migrant caravan will turn back before it’s too late for them too.