Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump was asked about his recent tweet that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” with the migrant caravan in southern Mexico. At first, he deflected, telling reporters that the US Border Patrol has apprehended people from the Middle East before. When a journalist asked him if he had any proof that Middle Easterners are in the caravan right now, Trump simply said, “Well, they could very well be.”
Asked again for some proof, the President answered, “There’s no proof of anything. But they could very well be.”
Trump’s backtracking is no surprise. This misinformation campaign serves to obscure the truth about these desperate people, and to stir up Trump’s base of voters.
On Monday morning Trump tweeted, “Every time you see a Caravan, or people illegally coming, or attempting to come, into our country illegally, think of and blame the Democrats for not giving us the votes to change our pathetic Immigration Laws!”
With this comment, Trump is blaming Democrats for compassionate policies that we should be proud to continue. Under US and international law, people in the caravan can apply for asylum and other forms of humanitarian relief at our border. They have this legal right whether or not they have papers or authorization to enter the country.
Moreover, Trump can’t rightfully blame Democrats for immigration laws that he doesn’t like. His party has controlled Congress and the White House for two years. If Republicans lawmakers wanted change, they could put forward reasonable immigration policy proposals and Trump could sign their measures into law. This hasn’t happened.
In February, a GOP attempt at coming up with immigration legislation ended in failure. Since then, rather than taking accountability for his failure to overhaul our immigration system, the President has offered nothing but ugly rhetoric and disastrous ideas like his “family separation” policy.
Trump and conservative media outlets have also embraced the idea that the caravan is full of “hardened criminals.” In fact, the people who join such caravans often band together to protect themselves from hardened criminals, like drug cartels and human traffickers. Many people in the last big caravan, in April, were women and children fleeing violence in their countries of origin. And that caravan had dwindled down significantly by the time it reached the United States, with only a few hundred reaching our border.
Trump has been pushing the false narrative that the caravan poses a threat to our country. Yet if these people reach the border, they can be processed like any other migrants and screened for asylum claims. The notion that they want to “invade our country” is a myth. The vulnerable people in the caravan hope to become part of our society, not to destroy it.
The reason Trump is conflating the caravan with terrorists ostensibly has little to do with reality and everything to do with politics. With the midterms a little more than a week away, he sees fear-mongering as the best way to activate his base. What else does Trump have to talk about?
His tax cuts are not popular with voters. His installation of Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court divided the country. Trump has not fulfilled his campaign promise of building a wall. So he is forging ahead with scare tactics. His advisers basically admit as much; referring to the president’s mistruths about the caravan, one senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast, “it doesn’t matter if it’s 100% accurate. This is the play.”
Actually, it does matter that what the President says is accurate. Though Trump has a well-documented reputation for lying, it is particularly troubling when he is lying about a situation where lives are potentially at stake. The good news is that attacking immigrants may not work as a midterm message. A 2018 midterm survey of voters in competitive congressional districts indicates that many Americans reject his xenophobia and divisive rhetoric. Polling from the research firm Latino Decisions shows that 61% of whites from battleground congressional districts favor a welcoming approach to immigration.
As long as Trump misrepresents the circumstances surrounding the migrant caravan, we will move no closer to solving the problem of so many families arriving at our southern border. That the President would use a humanitarian crisis for his own political gain is as cynical as it is predictable.