Trump seizes on immigrant 'caravan' for midterm push

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichelle Obama says not always easy to live up to "we go high" Georgia certifies elections results in bitterly fought governor's race Trump defends border deployment amid fresh scrutiny MORE is stepping up attacks on some of his favorite targets — immigrants, Mexico and Democrats — amid reports that a “caravan” of migrants is headed to the U.S. border.

With the midterms less than three weeks away, the president is demonizing the band of approximately 4,000 Central Americans as a direct threat to public safety and U.S. national security, amplifying a law-and-order message that helped propel him to the White House.

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“I am watching the Democrat Party led (because they want Open Borders and existing weak laws) assault on our country by Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, whose leaders are doing little to stop this large flow of people, INCLUDING MANY CRIMINALS, from entering Mexico to U.S.,” Trump tweeted on Thursday.

The message appears timed both to energize the Republican base ahead of the Nov. 6 elections and shift the political dialogue away from a series of controversies dogging the White House heading into Election Day, not least Trump’s defense of Saudi Arabia amid growing evidence the kingdom’s leaders are behind the disappearance, and apparent murder, of a Saudi columnist for the Washington Post.

Immigration experts, advocates and political operatives widely view Trump’s latest attacks as a messaging tactic designed to rally conservative voters to the polls, as Republicans are scrambling to protect majorities in the House and Senate.

Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law, characterized Trump’s strategy as “politics, pure and simple.”

“The demonization has impacts on real people, and doesn’t necessarily serve any purposes other than political ones,” Johnson told The Hill. “And I kind of think that part of the series of tweets we’re seeing right now has to do with the midterm elections coming up and him going back to his base on strict immigration enforcement.”

In a sharp escalation of his anti-immigrant rhetoric, Trump on Thursday threatened to deploy the military to the southern border — and scrap a newly negotiated trade deal with Mexico and Canada — if Mexican leaders don’t take steps to stop the migration “onslaught.”

“In addition to stopping all payments to these countries, which seem to have almost no control over their population, I must, in the strongest of terms, ask Mexico to stop this onslaught — and if unable to do so I will call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!” he tweeted

If there was any doubt whether the message is election-related, Trump dispelled it in his next tweet, which endorsed Rep. Dave Brat (Va.), a vulnerable Republican, for his “strong” approach to border security and crime.

Republicans have found themselves playing defense on immigration since June following the outcry over Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.

GOP strategists, citing internal polls, were concerned the family separations would harm Republican candidates, particularly among female voters. Many now see the caravan issue as a midterm blessing, one that could shift the debate away from a humanitarian focus and back to questions of national security and U.S. sovereignty. 

“This caravan brings into stark contrast and just really highlights some of the things Trump is fighting for when it comes to border security,” said Travis Korson, senior vice president at Madison Strategies, a Republican consulting firm. Trump’s audience is not just the GOP base, Korson added, but “anyone that believes in respecting and upholding American law.”

Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and vocal Trump supporter, predicted that two late-cycle episodes — both previously unforeseen — have upended the election debate to the benefit of Republicans: “One is [Brett] Kavanaugh,” he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity, referring to the partisan battle over the recently confirmed Supreme Court justice, “and the other is [the] caravan.” 

“Sometimes politicians and their consultants and everybody does all this planning and then history just picks things up and changes everything,” Gingrich said.

Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the House Republicans’ campaign arm, also said the GOP is getting a late, unexpected boost from immigration, particularly from the effort among some Democrats to protect so-called sanctuary cities and abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those positions, Hunt said, “are abhorred by voters in battleground districts.” 

Yet Democrats and immigration reform advocates have a decidedly different forecast, arguing that Trump’s hard line on immigration will haunt the Republicans at the polls.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant-rights group, acknowledged that conservative voters may respond to Trump’s tough rhetoric. But infuriated liberal voters will be equally as energized, Sharry argued, while crucial independents will also flock to the Democrats’ more lenient immigration positions.

“Right now, there’s real evidence that Trump’s appeal to xenophobia is backfiring with people in the middle,” Sharry said Thursday.

He said blaming the Democrats for the migrants is absurd because Republicans control Congress and the White House. He accused Trump of ignoring the underlying issues of corruption and violence driving migrants north.

“They’re in charge of the government that’s failed to reckon with this challenge effectively,” he said. “They have no serious effort to alleviate root causes.”

Trump has used the prospect of a mass influx of migrants for political bargaining as recently as April, when a group of more than 1,000 Central Americans seeking asylum trekked toward Mexico and the U.S.

Johnson, the dean at U.C. Davis, noted that scores of migrants have fled violence and poverty in Central America for decades, presenting a complex challenge for recent presidents.

Trump has addressed the issue through a combination of fiery tweets and policies focused on deterrence, such as his “zero tolerance” initiative that led to the separation of families who illegally entered the U.S. 

“I don’t know if we’re seeing any larger numbers than in the past coming to the United States, but we have seen a president who’s trying to adopt policies to deter migrants from Central America from coming here,” Johnson said.

There are legal limits on actions a country can take to keep its own citizens from fleeing the border, Johnson added, placing pressure on Mexico to stop the caravan before it gets to the U.S. 

Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday he'll offer work visas to Central American migrants, in part to diminish migration to the United States and to support his proposal for a U.S.-Mexico partnership for development. Mexico additionally requested assistance from the United Nations in processing individual asylum claims from members of the migrant caravan. 

Adam Isacson, the director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the new arrivals are likely to further stress Mexico’s already overwhelmed processing system.

To avoid a similar issue, he suggested the U.S. should hire additional immigration judges to expedite asylum hearings and clear the backlogs of those remaining in the country awaiting judgment. Trump has repeatedly balked at similar suggestions from lawmakers.

In the meantime, migrants headed north toward the U.S. border are unlikely to be deterred by Trump’s comments, Isacson said. 

“People in Central America, whether they are hungry or whether they are fleeing for their lives, are going to keep coming, because Central America is on fire right now,” he said.