Trump and Republican lawmakers stoke migrant caravan conspiracy theories

Rep. Steve King and President Trump. (Photo-illustration: Yahoo News; photos: J. Scott Applewhite/AP, Susan Walsh/AP, Moises Castillo/AP, Adrees Latif/Reuters, Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Iowa Rep. Steve King urged President Trump on Thursday to follow through on his promise to shut down the southwest border if Mexico does not block a caravan of Central American migrants from making their way toward the United States.

During an appearance on a talk show of conservative Des Moines radio personality Simon Conway on Thursday evening, King described the caravan, which had reportedly grown to include more than 3,000 migrants since its departure from Honduras, as an “invasion.” He also endorsed Trump’s threats to cut off U.S. aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — the so-called Northern Triangle countries from which a vast majority of children and families who’ve sought asylum at the U.S. border with Mexico in recent years have come, many of them fleeing rampant gang violence in their homelands.

“That adds up to quite a bit of money,” King said, encouraging the president to “say further that we’ll redirect those funds into building a wall.”

Such views are to be expected from King, an eight-term Republican congressman who has built a reputation on his incendiary verbal attacks against immigrants.

But while King often finds himself on the furthest fringes of the immigration debate — as illustrated by his recent endorsement of Toronto’s white nationalist mayoral candidate, which he also defended during his appearance on Conway’s show — his comments on the caravan simply echoed the message put forth by the president and fueled by other Republicans this week.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, attends a rally in September to highlight crimes committed by illegal immigrants in the U.S. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/GEtty Images)

During the segment, both King and Conway separately referenced a video first posted on Twitter Wednesday by Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida that supposedly showed women and children in Honduras receiving cash to join the caravan.

“Time to investigate the source!” Gaetz tweeted, suggesting that U.S.-backed nongovernmental organizations or George Soros, the wealthy investor and progressive bogeyman of the right wing, were paying migrants to “storm the U.S. border” ahead of the midterm elections. 

Guatemala-based journalist Luis Assardo took it upon himself to heed Gaetz’s call for an investigation and discovered, first, that the video had not been taken in Honduras, as the Congressman had stated, but rather in Guatemala. In a thread posted to Twitter Thursday, Assardo wrote that he spoke to people in the town where the video was shot and was told that local merchants had collected money among themselves to give to the migrants as their caravan passed through the area.

Without acknowledging Assardo’s reporting, Gaetz amended his original theory in a Thursday tweet. “UPDATE: Because a Honduran government official sent me this video, I believed it came from Honduras,” the Congressman wrote.

By then, Trump had already seized on the original video, reposting it from his own account with the message, “Can you believe this, and what Democrats are allowing to be done to our Country?”

At a rally in Montana that evening, Trump continued to pull the conspiracy thread, suggesting that Democrats were encouraging an “illegal immigration onslaught” because they “figure everybody coming in is going to vote Democrat.” Of course, none of the non-U.S. citizens currently attempting to seek asylum or sneak across the border illegally would be eligible to vote in the upcoming congressional elections, a fact Trump failed to mention.

President Trump speaks to media before boarding Air Force One on Oct. 18 for a campaign rally in Missoula, Mont. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Ahead of King’s appearance on the show, which is broadcast on Iowa’s largest talk radio station, Conway, a British immigrant who describes himself as “one of the proudest citizens of the United States,” perpetuated the theory that migrants who’d joined the caravan were not actually leaving home of their own volition but were in fact being used as pawns in a deliberate attack designed to make Trump and Republicans look bad ahead of the midterms.

He quipped that the caravan should be considered “foreign interference” in the upcoming election. Later on, Conway assured King that he’d already addressed the video when the Congressman asked if he’d seen the footage of people “being paid in cash.”

In a tweet Friday morning, former House speaker and Trump ally Newt Gingrich described the caravan as an effort to “attack American sovereignty.”

Adam Isacson, director for Defense Oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental research and human rights organization, quickly dismissed the notion that the caravan was part of a political conspiracy.

“It makes me laugh that Democrats would want the visuals of migrants coming in a big horde two and a half weeks before the midterms,” he said.

Police officers block Honduran migrants who were hoping to cross into Guatemala to join the caravan trying to reach the United States. (Photo: Jorge Cabrera/Reuters)

Isacson explained that the driving force behind the relatively new caravan phenomenon has been the fact that the journey to U.S. through Mexico has become extremely dangerous for migrants, noting that women and girls who make the journey often preemptively take birth control “because they’re sure they’ll be raped.”

“One way to avoid violence in Mexico is to hire a smuggler,” which can cost thousands of dollars. The other way is to embark on the journey in large groups. “There’s safety in numbers,” he said.

The timing of this particular caravan, which was reportedly led by former Honduran lawmaker Bartolo Fuentes and three others before Fuentes was detained upon entering Guatemala, is notably different from the annual pre-Easter pilgrimage of mostly Central American migrants that has been organized by the Mexico-based group Pueblo Sin Fronteras for the past eight years. (Irineo Mujica, an activist with Pueblo Sin Fronteras who helped lead a caravan with the organization through Mexico last spring, was reportedly arrested on the Mexican border with Guatemala while marching with migrants on Thursday.)

However, Isacson said, the fact that the current caravan quickly accumulated thousands of participants following its departure from Honduras “shows how willing people are to flee.”

Jess Morales Rocketto, political director of National Domestic Workers Alliance and chair of Families Belong Together, an activist movement that sprang up in opposition to the Trump administration’s family separation policy, agreed. She noted that her organization provided assistance to Pueblo Sin Fronteras during last spring’s caravan, recalling the “incredibly harrowing stories” of gang violence she heard from migrants who participated in that journey.

Honduran migrants bound for the U.S. climb into the bed of a truck in Zacapa, Guatemala, on Oct. 17. (Photo: Moises Castillo/AP)

“The idea that any of those people would be coming here out of anything other than desperation and doing anything other than an incredibly courageous act to save their lives is completely false,” she said, suggesting that Trump and Republicans are seizing on this caravan in an effort to rouse concerns about illegal immigration ahead of the midterm elections.

In fact, Trump made clear Thursday night that the caravan is now firmly part of his midterm strategy, telling voters in Montana, “This will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order and common sense.”

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