Let’s stipulate right here that President Trump doesn’t understand a lot of things, even as he enters his 28th month in charge of the massive bureaucratic battleship that is the U.S. government. But no issue has flummoxed our rage-prone 45th president more than the rise in unauthorized crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border -- even after promising his xenophobic base that his harsh immigration crackdown would make America great again.
When numbers came into the White House showing this decade’s biggest surge in refugees at the border -- with Border Patrol agents detaining as many as 4,000 migrants, many of them women and children, in a single day -- Trump reportedly went ballistic. He yelled and fumed at his then-Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen until he finally forced her out of the job, partly because she wouldn’t buy into the president’s ideas to fight migration with moves that were probably illegal and unworkable and certainly immoral.
The commander-in-chief wanted even harsher family separation policies, even after the first wave of ripping toddlers and even infants from their mommies and daddies, in 2018, had shocked consciences around the globe. He threatened to completely shut down the border with Mexico, which would have crippled commerce and maybe triggered a recession. He killed the nomination of a new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) chief who wasn’t “tough enough, fired other top Homeland Security officials, and flirted with ideas like sending detained children to Gitmo. A senior aide told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the president was “increasingly unhinged” about border crossings, even as he furiously tweeted out more fear.
To Trump, migration is a ridiculously simplistic zero-sum game. The immigrants are cheaters, frauds or out-and-out criminals, trying to take advantage of us (and, specifically, of Trump). Whether they “get away with it” is solely an equation that depends on how “tough” we are -- on hard-nosed, head-shaved Border Patrol agents named Steve (probably), until Trump can force Congress to build a glorious wall that will make the problem go away.
Donald Trump can’t handle the truth.
Because to do that, the Trump administration would have to do something alien to every xenophobic bone in its body: Embrace science. The president would have to stop cursing out and firing every official at DHS, stop rescuing oil lobbyists from the swamp and installing them in his Cabinet, and start accepting that climate change is real, that it’s occurring right now, and that responses like mass migration are an unavoidably human reaction to drought, floods and misery.
Experts (admittedly, non-persons in Trumpland) believe that a sizable portion of the recent steep increase in migrants making the long and dangerous journey from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are doing so because record drought in the region -- the result of a warming planet -- has destroyed crops and left destitute farmers desperate to save their families. Simply put, images of armed U.S. officers seizing kids at the border still won’t deter parents who see the only alternative as famine and crushing poverty.
“People have been displaced by climate for millennia, but we are now at a particular historical moment, facing a new type of environmentally driven migration that will be more fast and furious," Maria Cristina Garcia, a Cornell University professor publishing a book on climate-driven migration, said recently. "It will require incredible adaptability and political will to keep up with the changes that are forecasted to happen.”
Conor Walsh, who works for Catholic Family Services in Honduras, wrote recently in the Arizona Daily Star that severe drought in neighboring Guatemala in 2018 resulted in significant crop loss for as many as 300,000 subsistence farmers there. Indeed, the cycle of arid days without rain and severe floods has become so pronounced in the key growing regions of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras during the 2010s that the area is now called “the dry corridor.” Experts note that the last big drought in 2014 matched up with the last big surge in U.S. border crossings. And the World Bank says climate change may cause as many as 1.4 million people to leave Central America and Mexico over the next 30 years.
But “incredible adaptability,” to steal professor Garcia’s phrase, is not a hallmark of the Donald Trump presidency. Imagine a world where, instead of yelling at Cabinet members to lock up more kids in cages, the president sat at the Resolute Desk and listened to the story of Fredi Onan Vicen Peña, a 41-year-old Honduran coffee farmer who told the New York Times he’s seen a drought-fueled disease called coffee rust destroy 70 percent of his crop, while most of his family members have already left for the U.S. or elsewhere.
That world, sadly, does not exist.
Can the United States -- a.k.a. “the Colossus of the North” -- do anything to help the struggling farmers of Honduras and Guatemala? The answer, not surprisingly, is “yes.” Sebastian Charchalac, a Guatemalan agronomist who was running a program with about $200,000 in U.S. aid -- a mere pittance in the Land of Billion-Dollar Stealth Bombers -- told the New Yorker he was seeing real success in helping farmers diversify crops, conserve water, and, as a result, save their land. Then in 2017 the Trump administration arrived and killed the program.
Indeed, one element of Trump’s rage-frenzied rampage over border crossings has been an announcement that the U.S. will end all foreign aid to the three key Central American nations -- about $350 million to 400 million a year, already down sharply from the Obama years -- as a spiteful punishment for the supposed failure to curb migration. That money goes not just for farm aid but also for programs that attack problems like urban gang violence -- i.e., all of the horrible things that would cause people to abandon their native countries, undertake an arduous and dangerous long journey, and seek freedom and safety in the United States.
Ending foreign aid and covering our eyes and pretending that climate change doesn’t exist are all but guaranteed to drive the number of refugees from Central America even higher. It may be the ultimate case of adopting hurtful, counter-productive policies because they “trigger the libs” and sate the bloodlust of Trump rally crowds chanting “build the wall!” Instead of spending a few dollars to help struggling farmers, Team Trump will spend millions on tent cities that sure as hell look like concentration camps -- dragging America further into the muck.
Meanwhile, climate change-driven migration -- and the famines, wars and other crises created by this -- are only going to get worse. In January, the Pentagon warned yet again that climate change is a major national security issue for this country. But Trump, who won the presidency insisting he knows more than the generals, didn’t listen. He definitely won’t listen to the scientists, either. The president only listens to the narcissistic rantings of his damaged psyche -- and that is creating a human rights crisis on this continent.
This month’s action: Put air in your tires! I promised that for 2019 I would write at least one column every month about climate change -- and I made it under the wire for April (whew!). I also promised to keep suggesting small changes in our daily routines that -- if everyone did it -- could make a big difference in reducing greenhouse-gas pollution.