In certain corners of America there are few images that instill more panic or controversy than a large gathering of brown people. At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the image of a “caravan” of Latinos traveling to the United States from Central America has sent Trump into conniptions. Last week, Buzzfeed reported that a group of over 1,000 people, mostly from Honduras, were making their way north to the Mexico-U.S. border. Most of them are fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries. Trump took notice–when else?–after the story was covered on Fox News.
Shortly after tweeting “Happy Easter,” Trump unleashed a flood of lies, conflating two of the most vulnerable immigrant populations—Dreamers and asylum seekers–and attacked both to build political support for his nativist agenda.
We’ve seen similar meltdowns laced with misinformation from Trump before, each of which has invited criticism of his policy ignorance. But each Twitter storm makes it harder to believe the President is just a fool. Rather, as an unethical man, he is unconstrained by the need to be factually accurate in his pursuit of political power, and finds spewing nonsense about DACA and asylum-seekers to be convenient in that regard.
For instance, it’s hard to imagine the president truly believes Democrats are to blame for the demise of DACA when he ended the program on September 5, 2017. Trump threatened “NO MORE DACA DEAL” because he says the migrants risking their life to come to the U.S., are doing so to take advantage of the program. But in order to qualify for DACA, a person had to have arrived in America before their sixteenth birthday and have lived continuously in the U.S. since June 15, 2007. In addition, the same applicant had to have been present in the U.S. on June 15, 2012, and on every day since August 15, 2012. These requirements would have made it impossible for migrants in 2018 to qualify for DACA, even if Trump had not ended the program. Today, no new DACA applications are being accepted anyhow. When Adolfo Flores, the Buzzfeed reporter traveling with the caravan, asked some of the migrants about Trump’s latest DACA tweets, they laughed and said they thought they didn’t qualify. They are correct, they don’t.
Trump keeps repeating the falsehood (actually let’s call it what it is–a lie) that the Democrats refused to make a deal to protect Dreamers, when in reality it was the White House that rejected bipartisan deals, which included funding for Trump’s border wall, in September 2017, and in January, February, and March 2018. Trump knows all of this, which means he knows he deserves the political backlash from Dreamers and their supporters, and that he has screwed himself out of delivering on his main campaign promise—the wall. Lying about it is all he has left.
In Trump’s latest tantrum he also demanded that Mexico do something to stop the caravan because according to him, Mexico’s immigration laws work and ours do not. Trump ignores decades of international treaties that allow refugees to present themselves at the border to seek asylum. Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen shares Trump’s sentiment. She tweeted, “I echo @POTUS demand for Congress to address outdated and dangerous immigration loopholes – the system is broken. The traffickers, TCOs and others know how to exploit our laws. We need to get smarter, tougher. We are exploring all options to protect the Homeland.”
Immigrants who present themselves at the border to seek asylum are not exploiting a loophole as Nielsen calls it, they are simply responding to United States law. Maybe Trump doesn’t know the details, maybe Nielsen (a supposedly accomplished lawyer) misunderstands the difference between a loophole and the law. More likely they know full well what they are saying–that they want to change the way we treat asylum seekers—and stoking fear of migrants to revive the legislative debate over the border wall. It looks strikingly as if, having blown his chance to trade DACA protections for a border wall, Trump has decided to whip up a panic about asylum seekers, in a wildly dishonest way, to create a new source of leverage for himself.
The President of the United States is not as dumb as he sometimes sounds. He is less stupid than he is dangerous. Fact checking his errors is a necessary but insufficient part of holding him accountable for the larger wrong of lying about and scapegoating the powerless for his personal political benefit.