The “Migrant Caravan” Is Just Theater

I have not covered the “migrant caravan” because I am not a theater critic. But a fair bit of politics is theater, particularly around election time, and Trump has decided to make the caravan into his closing pitch for the midterm elections.

This is just theater, for both sides. There is some evidence the caravan was initially orchestrated by a leftist faction in Honduras supported by the regime in Venezuela, and it certainly serves as a bit of anti-American propaganda. In the US, that show has been rebroadcast for their own purposes by President Trump and the anti-immigration right. Trump has even gone so far as to deploy 5,200 US troops to the border to guard against this threat of “invasion.”

A lot of people on the right are engaging in a willing suspension of disbelief so they can enjoy being frightened by this theatrical production featuring thousands of suspicious, swarthy foreigners. It’s a genre that has long had a cult following on the right, and it is now unfortunately going mainstream. The fact that Trump has chosen this as his issue heading into the midterms shows you the sort of thing he thinks will motivate his “base.” That, in turn, brings me back to what I’ve already written about today’s election: that it will be a contest to see which party does a better job of pandering to its fringes while alienating everybody else.

But haven’t we seen this show before? Wasn’t there a previous caravan? I am ashamed to say that it was up to Fox News lightweight Shepard Smith (who has also apparently become the network’s sole quasi-liberal) to remind us of the results. In past caravans from Central America, most participants have dropped out along the way or ended up choosing to stay in Mexico (which, for all its problems, is still better than where they came from). A few hundred ended up applying for asylum at border crossings in the US. And that’s it. This is not a crisis, nor is it an invasion, and the troops sent to the border are not going to end up shooting anyone. They are just going to be ordered to a hot, dry, dusty place to do nothing so that a politician can hold a press conference. This tends to happen to our troops now and again.

Theater operates in terms of images, metaphors, evocative language, and narrative. But if we want to understand this rationally, we need to use numbers, mathematics, and demographics. That leads us to the bigger point: a migrant “invasion” from Central America is demographically impossible.

Let’s start with the fact that a few hundred or even a few thousand asylum seekers is small compared to normal rates of legal and illegal migration from Latin America—and even more insignificant compared to historic rates.

Border Patrol arrested fewer than 400,000 migrants last year. For comparison, that figure for the year 2000 was 1.6 million—back when Border Patrol had about half the number of agents it now employs. Arrest rates for the last eight years have hovered at similarly low levels not seen since the early 1970s. The reason arrests are so low is that mass Mexican migration to the US ended a decade ago and shows no sign of resuming.

Part of the reason for the decline in Mexican immigration is the end of a Mexican baby boom, combined with some economic improvement in Mexico. This means fewer young men without prospects heading north to seek their fortunes. So much the worse for us, if you ask me, because those previous waves of Hispanic immigrants—I know a few of them—brought us a lot of hard-working and enterprising people.

Today the source of immigration across our southern border, as with this latest caravan, has switched to unstable areas of Central America. But this is even less likely to lead to mass migration because similar demographic forces are at work.

The defining change for unauthorized crossings over the past few years is that the number of Central American families and unaccompanied children jumped by tens of thousands in 2014 and has remained high. This year marked a record for Border Patrol arrests of Central American families, the vast majority of which come from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

But Central America is headed down the same demographic path as Mexico. Together, the populations of those three countries total fewer than 31 million. That’s about a third of Mexico’s population in the year 2000, when border arrests peaked. And those three countries have similarly low birthrates. Guatemala’s is the highest, at nearly three births per woman, according to the World Bank. For Honduras, that figure is 2.45 per woman, and for El Salvador it’s just under 2.1—a figure barely touching the level that would replace the country’s population.

If you pierce through the crazed narratives and theatrics and look at the underlying numbers, the caravan dwindles into a non-issue. One academic expert puts this in perspective, not just with recent Latin American immigration, but with previous waves of immigration to America.

What if they were allowed to stay? In 2016, the US government detained 224,854 people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the US population. Even if the rate was maintained for a decade, it would still be a much smaller share of the US population than previous waves of migrants such as Irish, Italians and Russian Jews.

From a demographic perspective, I consider the immigration hysteria mostly a footnote to the long-debunked “Population Bomb,” in which the biggest threat to the world was supposed to be an excess of people. In response, we flooded the world with cheap contraceptives, and the result is reproduction below the replacement rate. So now the real crisis turns out to be declining population, not just in the West or in America, but everywhere.

Trends continue until they don’t, so I expect this one will ultimately correct itself. But if you insist on finding topics to worry about, as if enough of them do not naturally present themselves, declining population would be a lot more worthy of your attention than the migrant caravan.

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