Republicans are back to pushing the racist immigrant 'caravan' myth

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GOP lawmakers are revamping the xenophobic narrative they employed ahead of the 2018 midterms.

GOP lawmakers are renewing the xenophobic claim that "caravans" of immigrants are making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border to invade the country, seizing on recent news of a rumored group of immigrants supposedly making their way to the United States from Central America.

On Monday, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei declared a "state of prevention" in response to rumors, which first began circulating on anti-immigrant sites in February, of one potential caravan, which was said to be approaching the Guatemalan border from Honduras. As Reuters reported, a few hundred Hondurans were indeed set to travel to the Guatemalan border on their way to the United States, but that group had been mostly dispersed by Tuesday.

Republicans have pounced on the opportunity to link the various groups to President Joe Biden.

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) went on the offense, tweeting on March 25, "Reporter: 'What will you do to stop incentivizing illegal immigrants?' Biden: 'A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.' What is that? The slogan for the Biden caravan from Guatemala?"

Biden was actually quoting a proverb from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who taught that long, arduous journeys or tasks must all begin with simple but meaningful actions.

Then, on Wednesday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) tweeted, "The Biden Border Crisis is creating chaos and threatening the borders of multiple countries," linking to an Associated Press article about Guatemala's announcement.

Cotton was using news of the caravan to push the narrative of a "crisis" at the border caused by the Biden administration and its reversal of Donald Trump's harsh immigration policies. Researchers have said there is no evidence of such a crisis or that Biden's decisions led to it.

Other Republicans have been revamping the anti-immigrant "caravan" talking point to push the border "crisis" narrative.

Sen. Ron Johnson tweeted on March 8, "A caravan a day. Those are the numbers we are seeing right now at the border. We do not have the facilities to handle this. This is the tip of the iceberg of a crisis caused by President Biden's policies."

"I fear that we will soon see caravan after caravan again forming in the Northern Triangle countries and headed toward the United States," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted similarly on March 9.

Experts say the racist myth of a "caravan" invading the United States is not rooted in reality but is mostly a xenophobic talking point meant to fearmonger about immigrants more broadly.

"This vitriol against the caravan of Central Americans and Mexicans on their way to the U.S. border was cruel electioneering, no more," anthropologist and researcher J.P. Linstroth wrote in a 2018 op-ed, when Republicans first began rolling out the "caravan" narrative ahead of the midterm elections. "These people are poor and are fleeing horrific violence in their home countries."

Linstroth noted that U.S. intervention in civil wars in Central America during the 1980s had caused instability in the region that carries on to this day.

Furthermore, he said, immigrants often travel in caravans simply as a form of protection.

"Traveling in numbers makes the journey safer for these migrants. Often migrants are commonly victims of real threats of violence along the way — murder, rape, and robbery," Linstroth said.

In a phone interview, Leo Chavez, distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, further underscored the extreme risks immigrants face on the journey from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.

"You become commodities for people who want to take advantage of you," he said, noting threats of theft, sexual assault, and kidnapping were common realities for those making the trek.

Chavez said traveling in a caravan gave immigrants safety in numbers.

"Unfortunately, because they do that as a way to protect themselves, the image that's created, that's usable and weaponizable is that it becomes a metaphor for a whole bunch of people moving towards the U.S. en masse. And they use it like an invasion," he said.

Leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans and Trump employed the "caravan" rhetoric as part of the tactic to scare voters. At the time, they presented a message of impending doom, claiming in racist terms that such an "invasion" would overtake the country.

The broader electorate ultimately rejected that xenophobic fearmongering: Republicans lost 40 seats in the House and the majority in that chamber that year.

Following the elections, mentions of the caravans died down, only resurfacing again briefly in 2020, ahead of the presidential election and amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.