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Caravan of exaggeration: Trump makes dubious claims about Central American migrants

© ORLANDO ESTRADA/AFP/Getty Images Migrants take part in a new caravan, Monday, heading to the US with Honduran and Guatemalan national flags in Quezaltepeque, Chiquimula, Guatemala.

By Alan Gomez and Hasan Dudar and Bill Theobald, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON

President Donald Trump has been focusing attention on the caravan of thousands of migrants still deep in southern Mexico in an attempt to score political points two weeks before the midterm election.

He has made three claims that bear examination:

- The caravan contains “Middle Easterners”

- Democrats are involved in organizing the caravan

- Members of the MS-13 gang and other criminals are among the caravan migrants
Middle Easterners

Context: Trump tweeted Monday that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” among those migrants marching in the caravan. Later, he urged a TV reporter to “go into the middle and search. You’re gonna find MS-13, your gonna find Middle Eastern, you’re going to find everything.” Vice President Mike Pence backed him up, saying at a Washington Post event: “In the last fiscal year, we apprehended more than 10 terrorists or suspected terrorists per day at our Southern border from countries that are referred to in the lexicon as “other than Mexico” – that means from the Middle East region. “

Neither Trump nor Pence, however, offered any proof. The Associated Press, which has several journalists with the caravan group that now is more than 7,000, reported seeing nothing to back the claim. Speaking late Tuesday to reporters at the White House, Trump admitted he had no proof and said there was “very good info” on the matter.

Customs and Border Protection officials offered nothing concrete to back the claim, either. Instead they cited data showing how often criminals and people Middle East countries have been arrested trying to illegally cross the southwest border throughout the year.

In fiscal 2018, CBP agents apprehended 17,256 criminals, 1,019 gang members, and 3,028 “special interest aliens,” defined by the Government Accountability Office as “aliens from countries of special interest to the United States such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security data that was released Tuesday, 396,579 people were apprehended along the southwest border with Mexico in fiscal year 2018. Of those, 4.4 percent were deemed criminals by DHS; 0.3 percent were deemed gang members, and 0.8 percent were “special interest aliens.”

One source of the claim about Middle Easterners appears to be a few lines from a speech made by President Jimmy Morales Cabrera of Guatemala at the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America earlier this month in Washington.

While touting his country’s efforts to control drugs and gangs, he said: “We have arrested almost 100 people highly-linked to terrorist groups, specifically ISIS. We have not only detained them in our territory, they have also been deported to their countries of origin.”
Democratic involvement

Context: In an interview with USA TODAY on Monday, Trump claimed that the Democrats had “something to do” with the caravans that began in Central America, but provided no evidence for his assertion.

“Can you believe this, and what Democrats are allowing to be done to our Country?” Trump said Oct. 18, tweeting a video of the migrant caravan.

Again, the AP and other media outlets reported that it’s unclear who is behind the caravans from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Some have suggested the group is so large that no one person or group would be capable of organizing it.

The identity of the actual organizers of the migrant caravan remains very much an unanswered question.

“The organizer of this caravan is number one hunger, two death,” Rodrigo Abeja, who is with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the organization most identified by media outlets as leaders of the caravan, told USA TODAY in an interview Tuesday. The group says it is not the caravan organizer.

Further, given how much political mileage Trump has gotten out of the caravan so far, it would seem unlikely that Democrats would be trying to hand him a political issue just two weeks before Election Day.

Later Tuesday, the White House put out a statement accusing Democrats of allowing loopholes in immigration laws that created a "border crisis." No direct mention of the caravan was made but the implication was clear.
Criminals / Gang Members

Context: That may be true, given the sheer number of migrants. But once again Trump did not substantiate his claim that members of the MS-13 gang are among them.

The Associated Press reported that some migrants clashed with Mexican police at the Mexico-Guatemala border, throwing stones as they tried to cross the international bridge. Caravan leaders said they had expelled a number of troublemakers from the procession

Otherwise, the AP said, the caravan has been overwhelmingly peaceful, receiving applause and donated food from residents of the towns they pass through en route to the U.S.-Mexico border.

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