Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

"Migrant Caravan": What Is The Face Of America?

Associated Press/Felix Marquez

The "migrant caravan" moving from Central America, to Mexico, and eventually to the U.S. border, is nothing new. Similar migrations have been happening for years - in various forms - as a type of group pilgrimage for legal asylum from political corruption and violence. President Trump is calling it an "invasion", but the group is still hundreds of miles from teh U.S. border, and it's unlikely that most will be granted asylum. For some background on mass migrations, KNAU's Gillian Ferris spoke with Stephen Nuno, chair of the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University.


Credit Associated Press
Thousands of people from Latin American countries make their way toward the U.S. border, seeking political asylum

GF: This is by no means the first time these kind of group pilgrimages for asylum have happened. Can you give us some historical context for this kind of migration?

SN: Well, there’s been a historical migration from all Latin countries into the United States largely as a response or as a consequence of the United States’ relationship with Latin American countries and with Central America. The United States has historically had a relationship with Central America rooted in, number 1: its opposition to communism. Numer 2: in its push for economic development and for corporate companies, corporations, moving down into those countries and making money. And number 3: now, the relationship has been driven a lot by the “War on Drugs” over the last 30 or 40 years.

GF: So, no matter what a person might feel about what immigration should look like in this country, a huge part of the narrative that’s missing is ‘why’? Why do people go through this? This is not an easy journey. People are on foot with children and very few resources. Why? The ‘why’ is missing.

Credit Associated Press
A woman makes her way to the U.S. border with her children

SN: There has been a lot of instability in those countries in Central America. There are 7 countries in Central America, and it’s a very complex place. But largely dominated by its relationship with the United States. And the United States has used Central America to extract resources. It has used charges of communism even against democratically elected officials, historically, simply because they were not aligned with American corporate interests. The “War on Drugs” which began in the ’70’s and largely for the purposes of mobilizing people against African Americans and Liberals. These have all created policies that have created a lot of damage to Central America and Mexico. And that damage has created a push for people to leave those states because of rampant misgovernance, gangs and encouragement by governments for these gangs, moving drugs into the United States. The United States has an insatiable appetite for drugs, and this creates a lot of despair and desperation, and these people are leaving their situations. And if you think about anybody leaving their home and their families and their communities, to move over a thousand miles away…there’s a lot of pain behind those decisions. It’s not a decision these folks take lightly.

GF: I went through President Trump’s Twitter feed for the last couple of years to see if this migration was on his radar last year when it happened, or the year before when it happened. It was not. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t thinking about it, but it wasn’t there. Can you guess why Trump, or why Americans are using this narrative of this “invasion” coming across the border right now, leading up to the election?

SN: There’s always been a narrative of “invasion” surrounding migration in the United States. Every election year we have a lot of anxiety in this country about immigration, and it gets people motivated to come out and vote. If you remember when Donald Trump, President Trump, announced his presidency, right, at the top of his list was immigration, you know, calling Mexicans “rapists”. And so, this has been a dominant narrative of the Trump Administration. But the Trump Administration has learned from the history of the United States in using immigrants and immigration as a pressure point to get people to come out and vote.

GF: Can we put that in a political context? The U.S. has now militarized the southern border.

SN: So, this is not new political theater, but it’s effective political theater, especially for the constituents of the President. You know, his views on race are pretty normal if you look at it historically.

GF: What do you mean ‘pretty normal’?

Credit Associated Press
Migrants make their way across a river on their way to the U.S. border to seek political asylum

SN: Well, to think that the country should as a normative value reflect whiteness is ‘America’. Right? Captain America is the blond haired, blue eyed white guy. You know? When we think of America, our imagination of what is America is white. And when we think of goodness, when we think of patriotism, when we think of what is American, we have a white face on that. And Donald Trump’s imagination does not extend beyond whiteness. But that’s not unusual, right? And we have to get beyond that, or not, right? That’s the struggle that we’re dealing with now is ‘what is the face of America?’ Is it this one of intersectionality and complicated identities and interests, whatever those reflect? Or is it Captain America that comes into our mind when we think of ‘we, the people’? There’s an ideology that this narrative underlies.

GF: Would you say that part of that ideology is racism?

SN: Yes. It’s imbedded in the political system. But I think the good news is that we’re starting to see news outlets that previously refused to say words like ‘white nationalism’ or ‘racism’ or ‘white racists’. Before Donald Trump, news media were hesitant to use those words because they offended their listeners. But the media is still very homogenous and requires a lot of work.

GF: So words definitely influence campaigns. It’ll be interesting to see how the narrative is controlled after the election.

SN: I think the migration caravan will suddenly disappear after the election.  

Gillian Ferris was the News Director and Managing Editor for KNAU.