Trump’s false narrative of chaos at the border

As asylum-seekers flee to the U.S., misguided immigration policies proliferate.


Este artículo también está disponible en Español aquí.

California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West. 

In 2010, back when I covered the border region for public radio, I visited a shelter for migrants, a modest building located a mile away, just south of the fence separating San Diego and Tijuana. There, recent deportees could find a bed for a few nights after Customs and Border Protection agents released them in Mexico. That’s where I met 34-year-old Verónica Vargas, a mother of two from Los Angeles, who’d been deported after a domestic violence incident. At the local jail, police checked both her and her husband’s immigration status and soon after, processed both for deportation. The couple’s youngest child, 7, remained under the care of their oldest, 18, back in their Los Angeles apartment.

“There’s nothing I can do about it now,” Vargas told me, in a dispirited, barely audible voice. “We are here and our children are there, and they really need us.” Vargas, who told me she’d been living in the U.S. for more than 20 years without a criminal record, added that Tijuana was not even her home. All she could think about now, she said, was finding a way back into the States to be with her daughters. The possibility of arrest, fines or another deportation was no deterrent; she wanted to be with her children. “I’ll try to cross back into the U.S. tomorrow, and as many times as I’ll need to.”

The stretch of land between Tijuana and San Diego was then — and is now — the most surveilled part of the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border. Yet smuggling goes on anyway: People and drugs find new ways into the U.S., while guns cross in the opposite direction. Crossing illegally is increasingly dangerous and costly for everyone involved, but no amount of reinforcement can possibly stop this flow. Nor will political theater — including the kind that is paving the way for National Guard troops to be stationed at the border.

Members of a caravan of Central Americans that spent weeks traveling across Mexico walk from Mexico to the U.S. side of the border to ask authorities for asylum. On April 29, 2018, more than 300 immigrants, the remnants of those that journeyed across Mexico, reached the border in Tijuana, Mexico to apply for legal entry into the United States.
David McNew/Getty Images

Last month, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis approved deploying up to 4,000 National Guard troops to “seal up our Southern Border,” as President Donald Trump announced on Twitter. Troops from California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas would support U.S. Customs and Border Protection — without being permitted to arrest migrants or interact with them directly — through Sept. 30, 2018, which is when, in theory, Trump will have managed to come up with the funds to finally build his border wall.

But here’s the thing: There is no such thing as a “crisis” at the border. What we are witnessing is a rise in the number of people seeking asylum in the U.S., and doing so without receiving due process. That includes the caravan of more than 1,100 Honduran migrants, most of them families with children, whose well-publicized trek to the U.S. prompted Trump’s call for the National Guard. These migrants did not come to scale any walls; they came to ask for U.S. asylum at the border, as several dozen of them reportedly already have.

Illegal crossings are currently at a 46-year low — down 71 percent in May 2017 from 2014’s peak, when Customs and Border Protection records show that it detained almost 69,000 people. So the extra troops are most likely unnecessary. But, as previous deployments demonstrate, they will be very expensive. In 2006, President George W. Bush stationed the National Guard at the border for two years at a cost of $1.2 billion. After the mission, Army National Guard Commander Maj. David M. Church said the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, had not communicated effectively with the Guard and gave him little time for preparation. Then, in 2010, President Barack Obama ordered a similar deployment to “help reduce drug and human trafficking.” That cost an estimated $110 million, and, according to the Government Accountability Office, the results did not justify the price tag.

There’s no telling how much Trump’s National Guard deployment will cost, or even what it will be able to accomplish. California Gov. Jerry Brown, D, joined the other border states’ governors in pledging to send 400 troops, but he made sure to curb their role. “This will not be a mission to build a new wall,” he wrote in a public letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Mattis. “It will not be a mission to round up women and children or detain people escaping violence and seeking a better life. And the California National Guard will not be enforcing federal immigration laws.” Unlike the other border states, California’s National Guard troops won’t be allowed to use equipment to report suspicious activity to the Border Patrol, operate radios or provide “mission support.

Back in January 2017, Trump signed an executive order that promised to make good on his campaign promise to build a wall, “monitored and supported by adequate personnel so as to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.” This was followed by more mandates targeting refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, undocumented immigrants without criminal records, and sanctuary policies, especially California’s.

More than a year since that executive order, the $18 billion needed for Trump’s wall has yet to materialize. Meanwhile, we’re left with an increasingly isolated nation, one that is simmering with fear and anger, and ready to expel immigrants — mothers, children, asylum-seekers, Muslims — under the false narrative of chaos at the border.

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California.

High Country News Classifieds
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Outreach Manager to reach and forge new relationships with individuals and groups who represent communities historically...
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here:
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
    The Wild Rockies Field Institute is seeking a visionary Executive Director to lead the organization in Missoula, Montana. Individuals with a proven track record in...
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.