A global migration avalanche, roiling countries in Europe and producing a rise of far-right nationalism, presses America’s southern border. President Donald Trump’s attempt to discourage immigrants from Central America by forcibly separating children from parents provoked a national outcry, forcing him to back down. While a presidential decree may stop separation, the policy to imprison immigrants pending asylum requests remains in force, setting the stage for prolonged and bitter political and legal battles. Trump’s anti-immigration war is as much a part of his political struggle for Republicans to win mid-term elections as his battle against Western liberal order and European Union unity.

Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 election was based partly on his strong anti-immigration stance fueled by racist and anti-Islamic views. Determined to maintain an advantage in the November elections, the Trump administration in April announced a zero-tolerance policy on unlawful crossings at the southern border after sharply reducing the annual refugee acceptance quota. In the weeks since, the world heard reports of the United States taking more than 2,300 children, keeping them in makeshift tents and abandoned Walmart stores. Troubling images showed resigned women and men fleeing violence and poverty in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and authorities forcibly removing their children. Audio of wailing children, including a girl pleading with authorities to call her aunt, surfaced. The callousness of US action against migrants on TV and front pages of European newspapers is evidence of support for extreme-right European parties. Trump administration officials wavered between gleeful pride and embarrassment, sending contradictory messages both denying and admitting the policy was intended to deter immigration.

The policy, crafted to please a small base of supporters, included no plans for family reunifications.

Public outrage, along with the practicalities of warehousing thousands of children, forced Trump to back down. Lawyers and journalists continue to monitor the border, tracking down the secret shelters, transports under the cover of night and the administration’s lies. Diners joined activists in heckling the secretary of Homeland Security out of a Washington restaurant. Normally chipper commentator Rachel Maddow broke down in tears on air upon hearing about babies as young as three months old taken from mothers and the euphemism “tender age shelters”. State officials were caught off guard, too, with Agustin Arbulu, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, expressing concern about the young age of so many children “completely unable to advocate for themselves”, adding “nothing can replace the love, sense of security and care of a parent”. World leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Pope Francis, criticised separation as wrong and immoral. The United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein labeled the policy as “abuse” and “unconscionable”. The next day, US officials announced the nation was ending its membership of the UN Human Rights Council.

Trump had little choice but to back down, signing a terse executive order stating that his administration’s policy is “to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources”. The order’s derisive title, “Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation”, was another in a long series of attempts to blame others. The new policy does not ensure reunification for the children already taken, though the courts are reviewing cases and could still take action. Many Americans have no trouble imagining the terror for parents and children amid the language difficulties and bureaucratic morass, the potential for countless accidents as some border guards moved swiftly, offering false assurances to subdue their charges, and some parents lying about names and hometowns, hoping to avoid arrests that end hopes of legal entry. Once scattered, some families may never reunite, warns a former director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

US restrictions have reduced the number of refugees going through the legal resettlement process and increased furtive attempts avoiding official ports of entry. The Trump administration imposed a nationwide cap of 45,000 refugees for this year, and the country is on track to accept fewer than 20,000, explains Erica Brown, director of the Refugee Development Center, an independent non-profit agency in Michigan. The cap during the last year of the Barack Obama administration was 1,10,000, and Brown concedes that harsh policies have heightened public awareness about the plight of refugees.

A world of refugees

The world has almost 70 million displaced people, including 25 million refugees, and the desperate stream of people fleeing wars, environmental disasters, drug cartels and poverty is not slowing. The US relies on contract workers to handle unaccompanied minors. Bethany Christian Services, a global non-profit that places children in foster care settings, was forced to turn away some detained children. Southwest Key Program, a Texas non-profit, scrambles to hire hundreds of case workers, mental health clinicians, security monitors and other staff – not easy when the US unemployment rate stands at 3.9%. As of press time, Southwest Key had a temporary website. Reaching knowledgeable staff at the agencies responsible for the mass detentions is impossible, and lack of transparency could hinder reunions. Official claims about family privacy concerns are feeble attempts to hide ineptitude.

The president’s most fervent supporters won’t give up on a nativist, racist anti-immigration agenda and agree with his claim that Democrats want immigrants, as Trump put it, to “infest” the country. Bitter populism and resentment have taken hold of communities throughout the US and Europe. Wealthy industrialised economies transformed, bleeding jobs since the 1970s – at first, due to outsourcing jobs within their own countries and then to Asia, and later due to technology and automation. Inequality has flared as wages remain stagnant for all but the most educated and skilled workers.

Hostile anti-immigration campaigns are a key element of the worldwide anti-globalisation agenda. Hardline politicians gain traction in democracies by insisting that protectionism and immigration controls could restore jobs while dismissing criticism by educators, scientists, the press and courts. Trump has expressed admiration for authoritarian ways – Kim Jong-un’s staff “sit up at attention”, Rodrigo Duterte’s “unbelievable job on the drug problem”, and Xi Jinping’s move to shed presidential term limits – and easily slings insults at allies. Trump also encourages Europe’s hardliners who rely on fear and fragmentation. He congratulated Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, reelected after imposing harsh border controls, criminalising asylum requests and supporting a law criminalising aid for refugees. Trump also suggested that “the people of Italy got it right” about a new coalition government with a deputy prime minister who called for a census of the Roma community and “mass cleansing, street by street”.

The US was long a model of democratic values for the rest of the globe, promoting equality, opportunity, open markets and justice with checks and balances among the branches of government and respect for human rights and a free press. The country is severely polarised over human rights and civil rights as priorities, one side embracing solutions that cost less over the long term, like family planning, education and economic aid, and another preferring quick fixes.

The world may not care, but a Republican victory in the November mid-term elections is critical for Trump to avoid impeachment proceedings that could be launched by a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Trump’s battle to defeat investigation of his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia has now been intimately linked with the broader anti-migrant, anti-globalisation struggle.

This article first appeared on YaleGlobal Online.