Lionel Shriver

The march of the migrants poses a dilemma for America

27 October 2018

9:00 AM

27 October 2018

9:00 AM

Trump has hinted that Democrats may have been secretly funding the ‘caravan’ of more than 7,000 Honduran immigrants trooping towards the United States. I don’t think so. In the lead-up to the midterms, if any party would sponsor by far the largest organised mass migration to the US on record, Republicans would.

For politically, the spectacle is a gift. Thousands of clamorous would-be asylum seekers crammed onto a bridge with no toilets, stampeding, breaking into fights, demanding to cross the Mexican border, the better to gatecrash the US: it was a premier photo op for anti-immigration Republicans. Trump has threatened to close the American border and bring in the military. Nevertheless, most of the Hondurans leapt from the bridge to swim or be ferried to the Mexican side of the Suchiate River, and are now streaming toward their last hurdle, protected by Mexican federal police. It’s El Norte or bust.

Honduran migrants rest during their journey, in Huixtla, Chiapas state, Mexico (Photo: Getty)

The image of that multitude on the move, full of women clutching screaming babies while vowing never to return to a homeland grown intolerable, isn’t just a snapshot of the present, but a vision of the future. More than the terrorism it may abet and the climate change that may spur it, mass migration, all in one direction, is this century’s biggest story.

Defending his resolve to keep the caravan from entering the US, Trump has described many of the Hondurans as ‘bad people’. And OK, it’s possible a throng desperate to leave rampant violence behind includes a handful of gang members, since maybe the most dangerous country in the world isn’t even safe for thugs. But Trump is missing the point, for impugning particular immigrants as ‘bad people’ is a losing argument. The problem isn’t that they’re bad. The problem is that they’re people.


Perfectly deserving people, who had the lousy luck to be born in a shitty place. In every single media interview I’ve encountered, a migrant’s story has been sympathetic. In this sense, the open-borders contingent wins hands down, every time. Last week, the Hondurans on Channel 4 News seemed very warm and very nice.

Honduran migrants taking part in a caravan (Photo: Getty)

Across the West, we hear the same appeal, and it’s always persuasive: these are people who only want to work, to find safe homes in which to raise their families and to embrace a ‘better life’ — our better life. The sole difference between them and us isn’t qualitative but geographical: they’re there and we’re here. We’re lucky; they’re not. Good or bad fortune isn’t meritocratic. Americans have no more of a moral right to dry homes and safe streets than those Hondurans do. The issue of immigration intersects with scores of moral issues, but it isn’t about morality. It’s about self-interest. That’s what makes it so uncomfortable. The pursuit of self-interest isn’t necessarily concomitant with the pursuit of virtue.

Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador all suffer from high crime, political instability and economic malaise. If poor prospects and a culture of violence justify asylum, every citizen of these countries qualifies. That’s 39 million people. Given the recent example of Venezuela, the prospect of whole nations simply emptying out isn’t preposterous. Yet I don’t fancy my home city of New York, already inundated with Central Americans delivering pizzas on electric bicycles, being flooded with still more millions of their compatriots, even if they’re hard-working and ‘good people’.

I expect the left-wing media to continue to trot out family after family, in immigration crisis after immigration crisis, to testify on camera that they’ve come a terribly long way, that they aspire only to thrive and that the circumstances they fled were horrid. The petition is unerringly affecting: Jon Snow can’t lose. But this is the wrong conversation, just as Trump’s accusing the Honduran caravan of being riddled with ‘bad people’ is the wrong conversation. If the test is whether immigrants are fellow humans just like us, and whether they come from a worse place than the country they want in to, we pretty much let them all in. With such a no-brainer, there isn’t a conversation to be had.

(Photo: Getty)

But the right conversation is a bitch. Europe lies next door to a continent whose population will double to 2.5 billion by 2050, rising to an eye-popping 4.5 billion by 2100. This is the continent likely to suffer the most from climate change, already afflicted with desertification, and always prone to drought. It’s poor and corrupt. Its governance is broadly appalling. And most Africans have mobiles, connecting them to promised lands where life isn’t quite so nasty, brutish and short.

For the US, that surge of Hondurans is a wavelet in an incoming tide; for Europe, 2015 was mere prelude. Yet this autumn’s caravan may further entrench an effective protocol. Populous, organised assaults on borders can overcome physical barriers and overwhelm bureaucracies. Migrants trying to get into Ceuta and Melilla have had remarkable success with storming the fences simultaneously. Should they take their cue from the Hondurans, canny migrants currently chafing in Libya might all hit the Med in a flotilla on the same afternoon.

Millions if not billions of decent, ordinary people in need of food, clean water, shelter and medical care are bound to constitute a form of moral blackmail. They will all have heartbreaking stories. And if we continue to confront the issue as a question of sympathy rather than existential self-interest, they will nearly all get in.

Thomas Friedman has astutely characterised the West vs the rest as order vs disorder. But with over-stressed welfare systems, accelerating cultural upheaval and rising right-wing militancy, the lands of order can slide to chaos themselves. If in the next few decades we’re looking at migration on the scale I think we are, we may be required to develop a hard heart, or simply surrender to forces larger than we can control. I’m not sure which is worse.

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