Wall of Crosses in Nogales, Photo: Jonathan McIntosh

Christians Must Challenge False Rhetoric about the Migrant Caravan

Catholic Social Ethics

President Donald Trump has engaged in false rhetoric about the migrant caravan making its way through Mexico, appealing to the narratives many Americans hold about foreigners and migrants. Christians must appeal to a counter-narrative of welcoming and hospitality that better accounts for the facts.

Over the past several days, President Donald Trump and conservative media have focused Americans’ attention on a migrant caravan making its way from Central America across Mexico toward the US border. The caravan consists mostly of men, women, and children from Honduras who are fleeing violence in that country. It began with around 7,000 members, but has since dwindled down to about 4,000 as some participants have decided to return home or sought asylum in Mexico.

Despite the arrival of a similar, albeit smaller, caravan in April and May of this year without incident, President Trump has claimed the caravan represents a national emergency, calling it an “invasion” or “assault” on the United States. Both Trump and conservative commentators have suggested that the caravan is made up of criminals and “unknown Middle Easterners,” and that its members are rife with disease. Despite the fact that the caravan is still in southern Mexico, weeks away from the US border, Trump has called up active duty military in increasing numbers to assist at the border: first 800 troops, then earlier this week just over 5,000, and on Wednesday Trump called for 15,000 troops, although there is no indication he has translated this threat into a formal request to the Department of Defense.

Although the Trump administration had no control over the timing of the caravan, it seems clear that Trump and his conservative supporters are hyping the caravan in an attempt to stir up the Republican base for the midterm elections next Tuesday. This raises the troubling possibility that Trump is deploying active duty troops based on political considerations rather than in response to real national security threats. Likewise, it is certainly disturbing that the president is willing to marshal the security apparatus of the state in response to an exaggerated, in some aspects fabricated, threat, and that many Americans are willing to go along with it.

At Vox, David Roberts makes exactly this point:

All of this — inflating a bedraggled group of peripatetic refugees weeks from our border into a disease-ridden terrorist “invasion,” an urgent, imminent “national emergency” — amounts to a kind of willed delusion.It represents a collective agreement on the right to believe a narrative spun almost entirely out of whole cloth, draped over a reality to which it bears little resemblance.

Roberts worries that delusions about the caravan are symptomatic of an “epistemic crisis” in American democracy, in which a significant number of Americans inhabit a “hermetically sealed ecosystem of knowledge, news, and information in which nonsense and conspiracy theories flourish.” He fears that, without a shared set of agreed-upon facts, it is impossible to engage in the reasoned debate necessary for democratic governance. He adds, however, that the frenzy over the caravan represents something new: while previously conspiracy theorists and provocateurs were limited to media echo chambers, they now sit in the White House and have control over all the assets of the government, including the military.

Roberts rightly points to the history of conspiracy-mongering on the right (e.g., Benghazi, Jade Helm, birtherism, etc.) to help explain the exaggerated fears about the caravan. But this fear-mongering also draws on deep-seated beliefs about foreigners and immigrants that crop up repeatedly throughout American history: the association of foreigners and immigrants with criminality; the association of immigrants with disease, and even the description of immigrants themselves as a kind of infestation; the portrayal of immigrants as an “invasion.” As I wrote here last year, our understanding of public policy issues is shaped by a set of narratives or frames we use to make sense of the world around us; some of these narratives or frames give us a more or less accurate picture of the world, but others can be wildly misleading. Conspiracies or hyped claims like those surrounding the caravan make specific factual claims about events in the world that can in theory be falsified, but draw on underlying narratives or frames that are more fundamental and that are more difficult to falsify. It is precisely because conspiracy theories are often rooted in these more fundamental narratives or frames, however, that people are willing to believe in them even in the face of contradictory evidence.

As I noted in that same post, false narratives or frames make it particularly difficult to dislodge false beliefs about the world because those beliefs are closely linked to a network of other beliefs (some true, some false). We have a tendency to correct false beliefs in the way that is least disruptive to the whole network of beliefs we hold, which at times poses an obstacle to gaining factual knowledge about reality.

How, then, can Christians who oppose Trump’s rhetoric about the caravan provide a more truthful narrative? It remains important to challenge factual inaccuracies and absurdities, such as exaggerated accounts of the size of the group or unrealistic depictions of what might happen when the caravan reaches the border. But it is also important to avoid making inaccurate or too sweeping statements in response. For example, although it is certainly wrong to stereotype members of the caravan as criminals, it is also likely to be the case that some members have criminal records. When opponents make statements that are too sweeping in response to Trump’s false claims, counterfactuals can then reinforce people’s belief in the false claims.

More importantly, Christians must be able to provide more accurate narratives about the reality of the caravan and the American response to migrants and asylum seekers. Christians must be able to patiently explain the violent situations faced by individuals in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (and the US role in contributing to that violence) that motivate them to make the arduous journey to the US, whether in small groups or as part of a caravan. They must also give an account of how the process of applying for asylum at the border works, and the obstacles placed in the way of asylum seekers, such as overcrowded facilities at ports of entry and criminal gangs that prey on migrants waiting on the Mexican side of the border. Even here, though, it is important to avoid false impressions; in an attempt to challenge the notion that the caravan poses a security threat of some kind, some have exaggerated the number of women and children in the group, downplaying the number of men in the caravan.

It is also helpful to provide alternative narratives. For example, today Bloomberg reported that on Wednesday, Peru accepted 6,708 refugees fleeing the economic and political in Venezuela. In total, Peru has received about 550,000 Venezuelans in just over a year. Although the circumstances are certainly different, it is notable that a country much smaller than the US and less economically endowed has successfully received, without much fuss, a number of Venezuelans that dwarfs the number of asylum seekers and refugees admitted to the US each year. As Bloomberg points out, Peru has issued work permits to thousands of the Venezuelan migrants. The example of Peru shows that any perceived crisis caused by the arrival of migrants from Central America is a crisis of our own creation, caused by our own misperceptions of who the migrants are and by border policies not designed to address the realities of contemporary migration to the US. The US is perfectly capable of taking in Central American men, women, and children fleeing violence in their home countries while detaining or refusing entry to those with criminal backgrounds. We simply choose not to do so, as so many in the public are misled by xenophobic mental framing and ignorance of the realities of the migration process. Christians must work toward providing an alternative framing, one of welcome and hospitality, as well as realism.

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