Donald Trump is stoking fears about a Central American migrant caravan bound for the U.S. border – a move that seems to be playing to his advantage two weeks before congressional elections by rallying his base and leaving Democrats flat-footed.
Immigration, a hot-button issue over the summer as the Trump administration created a crisis over the separation of children from their parents who had illegally crossed the border, has roared back.
As voters make their choices for the November 6 midterm elections – decisions that election forecasters say could swing the House of Representatives back to the Democrats – Trump is seizing the moment.
The issue is campaign manna for the Republican president – and a rather unlikely political lifeline, provided by the trek of thousands of mainly Honduran migrants across Mexico for the US border.
“The Democrat Party is encouraging millions of illegal aliens to break our laws and violate our borders and overwhelm our nation,” Trump told a boisterous rally late Monday in the border state of Texas.
“The Democrats launched an assault on the sovereignty of our country.”
In his successful run for the White House in 2016, Trump played to Americans’ fears of a border crisis, with migrants ostensibly bringing violence and drugs into the country, to galvanize his supporters. (Academic studies have repeatedly found that undocumented immigrants are significantly less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.)
Now, he has threatened to formally declare the caravan situation a “national emergency” – a move that falls in line with his efforts to make immigration by undocumented migrants a flashpoint issue in November.
To the delight of his base, he has warned he would close the southern U.S. border with Mexico, and pledged to scrap international aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for failing to halt the migrant tide.
He doubled down Monday night, directly accusing Democrats without evidence of being behind the formation of the caravan of more than 7,000 people.
Months earlier, he had been forced onto the back foot as the border crisis raged, with Democrats seizing the high ground by assailing the administration’s parent-child separations as inhumane and un-American.
Now, the migrant caravan hype has allowed him to rewrite the narrative – and politically seize the upper hand.
Democrats appear boxed in, experts say.
If Democrats push back on Trump’s firm stance, they could appear weak on national security.
If they embrace the president’s hard line, they risk alienating Hispanic voters, a significant portion of their constituency.
“It is a gift (for Trump) that could not come at a better time,” Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer with the Migration Policy Institute, told AFP, referring to the caravan, which is still more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from the southernmost tip of Texas.
Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, including evidence-free claims that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” to the caravan, has reached a startling new level of falsehood and fear-mongering.
A Minnesota woman is afraid migrant gangs could take over people’s summer lake homes. “What’s to stop them? We have a lot of people who live on lakes in the summer and winter someplace else. When they come back in the spring, their house would be occupied”https://t.co/MI4ukfsbfP
— Elizabeth Dias (@elizabethjdias) October 23, 2018
“For sort of ginning up his base, it has proved to be extremely timely,” Chishti said. “Now, whether it will change any minds among Democrats or independents, that is yet to be seen.”
Manuel Orozco, a program director at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, said the migrant issue could have midterm repercussions.
“Given the level of polarization in the US political realm, any sudden change… can tip the balance,” Orozco said.
Vice President Mike Pence took Trump’s narrative and ran with it, saying Tuesday it was “inconceivable” that people of Middle Eastern descent were not among the “crowd of more than 7,000 people advancing toward our border.”
The migrants are bringing a new wrinkle to the political dynamic.
The Pew Research Center released data showing that illegal immigration was the highest-ranked major national problem among Republican voters, at 75 percent, compared to 19 percent of Democrats who saw it as a very big problem.
Instead, Democrats are following their playbook of hammering Republicans on health care, warning that Trump and his party are seeking to dismantle the Obama-era Affordable Care Act and end insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
As a sign that House Democrats have flailed at countering Trump’s tough talk on immigration, the chamber’s Hispanic Caucus chair, Michelle Lujan Grisham, tweeted three times Tuesday about the need to support transgender rights.
She made no mention of immigration.