Trump is exploiting illegal immigration rather than trying to stop it

How is it that Colombia is receiving 5,000 Venezuelan refugees every day, but the U.S. government is panicked by a caravan of 7,000 Central Americans who have not even reached the U.S. border and may never cross it? Why is President Trump tweeting that the caravan may contain criminals and possible “Middle Eastern” terrorists when there is no evidence of any such claims?

The answer to these questions that are making the rounds in social media is simple: Trump is exploiting this caravan of Central American migrants in order to stoke fear of immigrants in the United States and energize his anti-immigration base to vote in the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Trump is seeking to shift attention away from his cuts to medical benefits to millions of Americans, and from his tax cuts that have benefited the rich, by making this caravan the top issue of the campaign. And, to a point, he is succeeding, because Democrats have chosen to largely ignore the issue.

“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,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. “Democrats are focused like a laser on health care and will not be diverted.”

Hmmm. I’m not sure that the Democrats’ ignore-the-caravan strategy is very smart. The group of Central American migrants has become – largely because of Trump’s constant rants about it – the top story in U.S. media. It’s too late to ignore it.

Instead, Democrats should respond by exposing Trump’s xenophobic demagoguery, and then pivot the conversation to health care and tax cuts.

They should say that Trump is exploiting illegal immigration for his own political benefit rather than doing anything to stop it. What’s more, they should say that Trump has actually become an enabler of illegal immigration.

The Trump administration has redirected immigration agents to catch all undocumented immigrants, reversing the Obama administration policy of “focus on felons, not families.”

U.S. immigration agents are now arresting undocumented gardeners and maids, and separating mothers from their babies, rather than going after gang members, drug traffickers and people smugglers. ICE arrests of non-criminals soared 66 percent in the first nine months of the 2018 fiscal year over the same period last year, the Associated Press reported.

As a result, U.S. immigration courts can’t handle the hundreds of thousands of backlogged cases, and word has gotten out in Central America that if you cross the U.S. border and ask for asylum, it will be years until your case is resolved. That’s driving many to try to migrate without documents and escape violence and poverty at home.

Trump and his Republican Party have controlled the two houses of Congress over the past two years but have refused to pass a comprehensive immigration reform that would have both increased funds to secure the border and allow a path to legalization of undocumented residents who paid taxes and have no criminal records.

“Trump is not interested in fixing the problem, he’s interested in exploiting it,” says Frank Sharry, head of the pro-immigration Americas Voice group in Washington, D.C. “He wants to manipulate the issue for political gain. They are celebrating this caravan.”

Likewise, Trump’s latest proposal to cut U.S. aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador unless these countries do more to stop illegal migration to the United States couldn’t be more counterproductive.

The Trump administration had already requested to Congress – before Trump’s latest threat – cuts of nearly 40 percent in U.S. foreign aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, to $67 million, $81 million and $46 million, respectively, this year. By comparison, U.S. foreign aid to Iraq, including military assistance, is $5.3 billion.

New cuts in the already ridiculously low U.S. foreign aid to Central America would create more poverty in these countries and increase illegal migration to the United States.

Like all nationalist, populist demagogues, Trump is much more interested in exploiting the problem than in solving it. Democrats should call his bluff and denounce him as a de facto enabler of illegal immigration.

Andrés Oppenheimer is a Latin América correspondent for the Miami Herald. Send e-mail to: aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.