Immigrant caravan still far from border, but fear reaches Tennessee, stoked by Senate race

·National Correspondent
Marsha Blackburn, Phil Bredesen and the migrant caravan. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP [2], Rodrigo Abd/AP)
Marsha Blackburn, Phil Bredesen and the migrant caravan. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP [2], Rodrigo Abd/AP)

A week before Election Day, immigration appears to be emerging as a flashpoint in Tennessee’s closely watched Senate race, fueled in part by the much-publicized caravan of Central American migrants making its way north through Mexico en route to the U.S. border.

Democrat Phil Bredesen released a new television ad Tuesday defending his record on border security amid attacks from Republican Marsha Blackburn, who has seized on the caravan to tout her support for stronger deterrents against illegal immigration, including the construction of President Trump’s proposed border wall and going after so-called sanctuary cities.

Last week, Blackburn, an eight-term congressman (the term she prefers) from the Nashville suburbs who has made immigration one of her central campaign issues, was among the first Republican candidates in the country to speak out on the caravan, which at the time was about 1,500 miles from the U.S. border. (The caravan is currently about 1,000 miles from the border but is expected to take a detour through Mexico City, adding time and distance to the journey. It is still unclear which part of the U.S. the caravan will approach, but estimates are that it is still “weeks away” from reaching the border.)

Echoing the alarmist language Trump has used about the caravan, Blackburn described the group as an “illegal alien mob.” Citing the Department of Homeland Security, she said the caravan included “gang members, individuals with criminal histories and people from the Middle East.” (The DHS has not provided evidence for this claim, telling Axios it is “law enforcement sensitive.”)

“There’s a right way and wrong way to come to the United States, and this is the wrong way,” Blackburn said in an interview with Fox News. “You don’t come as an invading force, and that is what we are seeing with this caravan, and there is an opportunity for those who need asylum to apply for asylum, but to come as an invading force is not how people should come to this country.”

President Trump and Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn at a rally in Johnson City, Tenn., on Oct. 29, 2018. (Photo: Michael McCollum/ZUMA Wire)
President Trump and Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn at a rally in Johnson City, Tenn., on Oct. 29, 2018. (Photo: Michael McCollum/ZUMA Wire)

Bredesen, a former governor and mayor of Nashville who has campaigned as a centrist in the race and has not made immigration a central issue in his Senate bid, told WCYB-TV in Bristol, Tenn., that he didn’t believe the caravan was a security risk.

“We’re the strongest country in the world and a few thousand very poor people going to our border is not a threat to our security,” Bredesen told the station.

Blackburn’s campaign immediately clipped Bredesen’s comment on the caravan and blasted it out on social media, suggesting he wanted to “roll out the welcome mat for them.” The congressman also called attention to the former governor’s other comments on immigration, including his suggestion at their final debate earlier this month that Trump’s proposed border wall was merely “political theater.”

Bredesen has argued that the estimated $70 billion that has been projected as the wall’s cost would be better spent on other deterrents, like drones and other high-tech security measures.

But Blackburn insisted, “Walls work.” Asked how the country would pay for it, she dodged the question but argued that a wall is what Tennessee voters want.

Phil Bredesen, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks with voters Oct. 29, 2018, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Phil Bredesen, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks with voters Oct. 29, 2018, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In recent weeks Blackburn has gone after Bredesen, accusing him in ads of making it easier for illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses in Tennessee — a bill that was actually signed into law by his predecessor as governor, Don Sundquist, who has endorsed Blackburn.

On Monday, the same day the Pentagon announced it would deploy some 5,000 troops to the border in a show of force that many argued was aimed more at midterm voters than at scaring off illegal immigrants, Bredesen published an op-ed in The Tennessean calling for cooler heads to prevail. “When it arrives, the potential for chaos is high,” he wrote. “We need to handle this well and not let it become an opportunity for politicians from either party to inflame passions and sow discord among Americans. This is an occasion for everyone to act like grownups.”

The back-and-forth comes as polls suggest the race is at a dead heat. Two weeks ago, polls said Blackburn had jumped into a double-digit lead in the days after the Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. While both Blackburn and Bredesen said they supported Kavanaugh’s nomination, Bredesen waited until the day of the vote to announce his position, which Blackburn said showed he was testing the political winds.

But a Vanderbilt University poll of likely Tennessee voters released last week found Bredesen ahead by 1 point, effectively a tie.

A man, part of a caravan of migrants from Central America en route to the U.S., carries a girl through the Suchiate River into Mexico from Guatemala, Oct. 29, 2018. (Photo: Adrees Latif/Reuters)
A man, part of a caravan of migrants from Central America en route to the U.S., carries a girl through the Suchiate River into Mexico from Guatemala, Oct. 29, 2018. (Photo: Adrees Latif/Reuters)

A Reuters/Ipsos/UVA Center for Politics poll released Oct. 17 found that only 11 percent of likely Tennessee voters said immigration was the most important issue facing the country. It ranked third behind other issues, including health care and “morality.” And just 9 percent said it was the No. 1 factor in their vote. Still, 46 percent of likely voters polled said they preferred Blackburn’s approach to immigration, compared with 34 percent who backed Bredesen’s. Twelve percent of those polled said they didn’t know, and 8 percent said “neither.”

In a sign of the issue’s growing importance in the race, Bredesen’s campaign released a new television ad Tuesday touting his immigration record as governor — including his sending the state National Guard to help patrol the border when George W. Bush was president.

“Actions speak louder than words. In 2006, when the president said he needed help to secure the border, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen didn’t wait to be asked. And he didn’t play any politics,” the ad says.

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