Several caravans of migrants originating in Central America headed toward the U.S. border, although they were still hundreds of miles away in southern Mexico, proved a constant target in the U.S. for fear-mongering, misinformation, and hoaxes in the lead-up to consequential 2018 midterm elections.
Case-in-point: On 2 November 2018, the right-wing website Breitbart.com exaggerated a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) fact sheet and reported that “300 in migrant caravans” were people with known criminal histories. Under the headline, “DHS: 300 in Migrant Caravans Are Known Convicts, Gang Members,” Breitbart hedged their reporting to say:
Department of Homeland Security officials report that nearly 300 members of the migrant caravans en route to the U.S. at this time are either convicted criminals or known gang members. The criminals include individuals with convictions for sexual assault on a child, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery, and assault on a female, officials reported.
In an effort to lay out the facts about the migrant caravans approaching the U.S. from Central America, DHS officials reported that more than 270 people traveling along the caravan route have criminal histories or are known to be members of violent gangs.
In reality, the very vague DHS fact sheet only reported that over 270 people with criminal histories were “along the caravan route”; it didn’t state those persons were actually part of the caravan itself:
We continue to be concerned about individuals along the caravan route. In fact, over 270 individuals along the caravan route have criminal histories, including known gang membership. Those include a number of violent criminals — examples include aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery, sexual assault on a child, and assault on a female.
We pressed DHS to provide a definition of what being “along the caravan route” meant but didn’t receive a definitive answer. DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton referred us to statements made by DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a 28 October 2018 Fox News Channel interview in which she spoke in general terms about the “flow of people that are headed towards the United States”:
This isn’t a ticketed event. You don’t have a membership in the caravan. There are, consistently moment to moment there are those who are raising their hands and saying they’re part of the so-called caravan and then there are others who — yesterday said they are part of the caravan, today say they are no longer a part of the caravan …
This is about understanding who’s in the flow and I cannot tell you as Secretary of Homeland Security that I know everybody in this flow. What I do know is that we stop 3,000 people a year who have travel patterns similar to terrorists attempting to come in the southwest border. And as you know in general we stop, across the United States, terrorists every day.
In other words, DHS doesn’t know who is or is not part of a caravan at any given point, so they answered the question “Are there criminals in the caravan?” by providing an ambiguous response about criminals and gang members “along the caravan route.”
Although a large caravan that left Honduras on 12 October 2018 attracted the most attention in the U.S., other smaller ones are headed north as well. They don’t have predetermined, mapped out routes, said Pedro Rios, San Diego program director for the American Friends Service Committee. Instead, they have been making plans as situations arise.
“Certainly there are some well-treaded migrant routes in the eastern or western directions, but it’s unclear which way they’re going to go,” Rios told us. For example while caravan travelers were hoping buses would take them from the state of Veracruz to Mexico City, that plan was scuttled when the Mexican government threatened to charge bus drivers with trafficking, forcing the migrants to make the dangerous trek on foot.
Although the group was traveling together for safety reasons, Rios said about 100 people, including children, were unaccounted for and were feared to have been kidnapped by cartels.
The first and largest caravan has varied in size as people join or leave it, the military, which had sent over 5,000 troops to the border in response, estimated only 20 percent of those who started the journey would make it to the border.
Breitbart also misleadingly reported that “DHS officials also said the migrant caravans are about 50 percent male.” Actually, the DHS fact sheet stated that the caravan members were “approximately 50 percent single adults”:
[O]ur foreign partners suggest that approximately 50 percent are single adults. However, the Guatemalan Intel Minister said that the caravan is employing tactics to push women and children to the front to act as human shields as the caravan pushes against its military forces.
Rios called the claim that caravan travelers were using women and children as human shields “absolute nonsense and ridiculous.”