MAHA HILAL FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
On October 12, a caravan of asylum seekers, which had as many as 7,000 people in the beginning (now estimated to be down to 4,000), departed from Honduras with the intention of reaching the Southern border of the United States. A graphic shared by the caravan organizer stated, "We don't leave because we want to, violence and poverty chases us out."
This continues to be true of asylum seekers fleeing their homes in search of safer countries -- including the United States, which has played a significant role in devastating countries in South and Central America. Nonetheless, the mainstream news and political cycle has consistently downplayed the root causes of immigration to the United States, including devastating economic policies such as NAFTA, support of dictatorships and military intervention. This could not be more evident as the Pentagon announced plans to dispatch 5,000 active-duty troops to the US-Mexico border and the Trump administration continues to signal potential systematic denials of asylum.
While Trump continues to escalate rhetorical attacks and ignore these root causes driving asylum seekers to the United States, his administration has once again taken the opportunity to stoke the flames of racism and xenophobia through misleading the public on everything from the size of the caravan to who is part of it. Enter: Middle Easterners.
On October 22, Trump tweeted,
Sadly, it looks like Mexico's Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy [sic]. Must change laws!
Adding to the unsubstantiated claim that Middle Easterners are part of the Honduran caravan, Vice President Mike Pence doubled down, saying, "The United States of America intervenes and prevents 10 terrorists or 10 suspected terrorists from coming into our country every day. So, it is inconceivable that there would not be individuals from the Middle East as part of this growing caravan."
While the vitriol directed at these asylum seekers from South and Central America is deplorable, with the Trump administration often accusing these groups of criminality without evidence, the random incorporation of Middle Easterners -- coming on the heels of the third Muslim Ban that was upheld by the Supreme Court-- was clearly an attempt to reignite the fear of Muslims and perhaps to prime the public for more restrictive immigration policies.
When confronted on his "evidence" about Middle Easterners being part of the Honduran caravan, President Trump admitted, "There's no proof of anything," though he also went on to say "that over a course of a period of time you [will] have [Middle Eastern individuals in the caravan], or they don't necessarily have to be in that group. But certainly, you have a lot of people coming up through the Southern border from the Middle East and other places that are not appropriate for our country."
Coupled with Vice President Pence's quote, the intention here is clear: Muslims are "terrorists" and "sneaky" -- a trope often associated with this group -- in that they are trying to enter the United States through multiple borders, and they don't belong in the United States.
Moreover, the fact that the Trump administration used Middle Easterners as a stand-in for "terrorists" is indicative of how the government has tried to solidify the two as synonyms and in this case, erase the possibility that they too could be victims of political unrest -- in spite of the violence that the United States has continued to foster and perpetuate whether in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Further, if these blanket statements foreshadow anything on the administration's end, it may very well be that other measures will be instituted to prevent the entry of Muslims on a much larger scale.
More immediately however, President Trump's evidence-free claim perpetuates the cycle of Islamophobia that has flourished since 9/11 and that has become critical to elections in this country. After all, Trump's statement wasn't just about who was coming, but how they would be dealt with. The claim also meant to dredge up fears of terrorism -- that which is attributed to Muslims.
But the explicit purpose of including Middle Easterners in the story of the asylum seekers caravan was to capture the antagonism and fear of anyone who wouldn't be swayed by criminalizing South and Central Americans alone. In other words, adopting the broadest approach to criminalizing the caravan serves an important role not just in renewing fears of Middle Easterners, but also in catering to his base of diverse racists. After all, if Trump has learned anything throughout his presidency and even before, it's that racism wins hearts, minds and votes.
The safety and security of the asylum seekers caravan is and continues to be paramount, especially since there are now more than 2,000 National Guard troops along the US border. Nonetheless it's still important to underscore problematic narratives of Muslims and Arabs that permeate much of the discourse and that seek to criminalize this group in every conceivable political space. Lastly, these narratives are important to challenge because of the role they play in justifying abusive policy.
While the caravan inches closer by the day and anti-immigrant narratives persist, it's imperative to push back on all of them.