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Migrant caravan timing a 'gift' for Trump

Michael Knigge Washington
October 24, 2018

In a replay of his 2016 campaign, President Trump is whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment to stoke his base for the midterm election. But it will do nothing to stop what is a slow moving train wreck in Latin America.

Migranten aus Mittelamerika auf dem Weg in die USA in Huixtla, Mexiko
Image: AFP/Getty Images/J. Ordonez

"Remember the midterms", US President Donald Trump reminded his 55 million followers on Twitter on Tuesday in a sequence of tweets focused on the so-called migrant caravan that is making its way through Mexico towards the US border.

If there was ever any doubt that Trump would forego the attention-grabbing visuals of thousands of Latin American migrants braving brutal conditions to trek tens of miles per day in hopes of reaching the US, a series of presidential tweets sent out in the past couple of days erased it.

Using military jargon to describe the caravan and alleging — without offering evidence — that criminals and "unknown Middle Easterners" were part of the group, Trump faulted Democrats and US courts for standing in the way of a tougher immigration policy, and El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the home countries of most of the migrants, for not preventing them from making the journey.

Read more: Caravan of migrants tests Trump's anti-immigrant policies

Tested playbook

"The timing of this could not be a larger gift to President Trump and the Republican Party in advance of the midterm elections", said  Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center's Latin America program. She noted that, ahead of competitive midterm elections, Trump — by associating immigrants with crime — was simply going back to his electorally successful 2016 campaign playbook.       

"I think that's precisely why President Trump is going to his Twitter account and making all kinds of harsh statements to appeal to his base and to stoke that kind of fear", said Arnson. "There has been a consistent messaging from this White House to equate migrants with violent crime and the evidence is actually quite the contrary."

Trump's controversial effort to turn the plight of thousands of migrants desperate enough to make the consequential decision to leave their homes to go on an arduous journey they hope will somehow enable them to find a safe haven in the United States is unlikely to sway any undecided voters. But it may well succeed in rallying his core base of supporters, which in a close election could be enough to eke out a victory.

"This election is going to be won by turnout", said Karen Alter, a political scientist at Northwestern University. "Trump is trying to dial up the fear dial to distract to an area where he is being perceived as stronger, mainly his willingness to crack down on immigration, in hopes that that affects the turnout."

Read more: Donald Trump vows to cut Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala foreign aid

USA, Washington: Trump hält eine Kabinettssitzung im Weißen Haus
Donald Trump has seized the migrant caravan as an election issueImage: Reuters/K. Lamarque

Key issue for GOP

A Pew Research Center poll published earlier this month appears to support the strategy of focusing on immigration to boost Republican turnout. "Illegal immigration is the highest-ranked national problem among GOP voters, but it ranks lowest among 18 issues for Democratic voters", found Pew researchers.

Trump's push to elevate the migrant caravan to an urgent national security issue may bring in Republican votes, but it is disingenuous and does nothing to solve a migrant crisis that has been ongoing in ebbs and flows since 2014 when the first groups of unaccompanied minors entered the US during the Obama administration, noted the scholars.             

"The larger issue is that there is a slow moving train wreck going on in Latin America of governments that are falling apart and they are generating refugee crises", said Alter.  

In El Salvador, Honduras and other countries the security situation for people has become so dire now that families simply feel they cannot stay there. With governments unable to provide even the most basic protection for the people, corrupt police forces and ultra-violent gangs and drug cartels taking over, the choice for citizens is easy.

Read more: Hondurans fleeing poverty, violence: 'There is no other option'

The perilous journey to the US

Complete desperation

"They are leaving out of complete desperation", said Alter. "And since they are leaving out of desperation, nothing that President Trump yells in his tantrum — 'I am going to remove foreign aid, I am going to build a wall' — none of that can stop desperate people who are literally facing life and death situations."

What's more, nixing foreign aid to the deeply impoverished nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras will only increase the country's troubles and potentially cause even more people to seek refugee in the US.

"There is nothing that could be more counterproductive in the medium and long term, because the only lasting resolution to the migrant crisis is to be found in the region and to changing the conditions of deprivation and violence that continue to cause people to flee because they feel they have no future and no safety within their own borders", said Arnson.

Read more: Central American migrant caravan continues march toward US

Mexiko Mittelamerikanische Migranten auf dem Weg in die USA
The migrants are fleeing the violence in their own countriesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/I. Sanchez

Address root causes

But that, said the scholars, would require the change of US policy toward a region that it has ignored far too long to its own and the region's detriment. 

"We are going to need to pay much more attention to our backyard than we have been paying attention to it recently", said Alter. "And the good news is that we don't actually have Muslim fundamentalist terrorists in Latin America and that these are really internal crises that you actually might have a chance to address."

But instead of focusing on the much more difficult task, of addressing the root causes of the ongoing migrant crisis in the region, Trump has chosen the very convenient path "to throw these chaos bombs to distract the media, to distract the American public and to try to motivate people to turn out in the midterm elections."

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