What History Can Tell You About The Immigrant Caravan

The recent media reports of an invasion by Honduran immigrants, a caravan identified as a national security threat by the president, dominated the recent election cycle in the United States, making the referendum all about the issue of immigration. The reporting has followed a script that is similar to others in American history.

The pattern of discourse reveals a traditional reaction by American voters, motivated by nativist impulses, blaming immigration for problems of the nation, without seeing beyond immigrants themselves. United States deliberately interves to cause crises through foreign policy interventions, creating refugee caravans designed to stoke more nativism within the country for political gain.

Caravan-1052757996The refugee caravan at the border is fleeing violence and poverty in Honduras that was created by a coup against the democratically elected government. Research by the Center for Economic Policy and Research reveals that the United States worked to support the overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. They wrote, “Evidence …suggests that the Pentagon’s main interest was in maintaining relations with a close military ally, rather than in overturning the coup.” [1] This intervention was intentional, serving the personal, political and geographic goals for political elites in Honduras and the the United States.

Support for the coup prevented democratic reforms taking place, alter the economic and political control of Honduras in favor of the economic elite, a group favored by the U.S to protect its own interests in the nation. The Honduran business and political class even lobbied Congress before the coup for support, according the The Intercept, who reported that a lobbyist, “decided to “start using the true and trusted method and say, ‘Here is the bogeyman, it’s communism.’ And who are their allies? The Republicans.”[2] The support for a coup in Honduras elevated the military to control, plunged the Honduran people into chaos, and fed the flight of refugees toward the United States. All of these effects played into the electoral and legislative priorities of the Republican Party to different extents.

The Honduran Coup

The efforts to destabilize Honduras have benefitted many who now have increased power and access in the Trump Presidency. “ Under President Trump and the coterie of military officers surrounding him, including former SOUTHCOM commander and now White House chief of staff John Kelly, US-backed militarization appears likely to deepen in Honduras and elsewhere throughout the region.”[3] Increasing control over Central American nations invests powerful and profitable relationships within the U.S. military and the political class. Once in positions of power in the Executive Branch, the influence over a military regime in a Central Americans republic can be useful to create chaos for manipulating nativist fears of an immigration invasion among domestic supporters.

The chaos these relations can create funnel a stream of desperate refugees toward the United States that have been used to justify increased political control domestically. Gallup polling shows that forty three percent of Americans support building a border wall with Mexico.[4]

While not a majority, it is significant when seen through partisan perspective. Seventy three percent of Republicans support building the border wall, according to the same Gallup poll. [5] In This Muslim American Life, Mustafa Bayoumi wrote of the marriage between national security and immigration, quoting Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2002 when he announced, “Let the terrorists among us be warned. If you overstay your visa by even one day, we will arrest you.” [6] The obvious implication was to see legal immigration as associated with lawless intention, and the need to enforce immigration law as equivalent to national security.

When trying to encourage the base to vote for candidates in the midterm elections, few issues make Republican show up at the voting booth better than dire warnings about immigration and the need for a border wall. Without the ability to funnell refugees toward the American border, Republicans would lose their illusion of an immigration invasion necessary to mobilize their base supporters.

The response has followed a familiar script, describing the immigrants as invaders, disease carriers and job takers. “What the president of Honduras told me was organized by leftist groups in Honduras, financed by Venezuela and sent north to challenge our sovereignty and challenge our border,” [Vice President Mike] Pence said.[7] Not to be outdone, Fox New Insider reported that Laura Ingraham said “she would like to hear Durbin or other Democratic lawmakers speak as passionately about the Americans who have lost their jobs — or their lives — at the hands of illegal immigrants.” [8]

These descriptions are common immigration history, reflecting a theme of nativist racism that is often manipulated by politicians for their own re-election efforts. The composition of the migrant caravan has been described as containing criminals and terrorists, by the Trump Administration. “The Department of Homeland Security issued a fact sheet stating that “over 270 individuals along the caravan route have criminal histories, including known gang membership.” But it did not specify how it had arrived at that number.” [9]

This announcement is a continuation of a theme in United States nativist and immigration history. Historian John Higham of the Johns Hopkins University, wrote in his history of immigration at the turn of the Twentieth Century, Strangers in the Land, “Every time a simple Italian Laborer resorted to his knife, the newspapers stressed the fact of his nationality…”[10] Just as today, immigrants have always been deliberately associated with violence by the government in order to manipulate the public to fear foreigners.

The reason for this has always been to assert more power over the public. Rachel Ida Buff wrote in The Deportation Terror, “Policing the borders against the continuously racialized threat of undocumented immigration requires an escalating discourse of exceptions to notions of due process and equality. This escalated discourse then becomes grounds for spectacular trespass against civil liberties, such as the internment of Japanese Americans, or the detention without cause of legal immigrants from places or of faith with a particular mapping of terrorism.”[11] The writer and teacher Mustafa Bayoumi wrote of this same stigmatization of Muslim Americans after 9-11 in his book This Muslim American Life, “Law professor David Cole estimates that more than five thousand individuals were arrested, the vast majority of them deported after spending months in detention.”[12]

Higham emphasized that the anti-immigrant sentiments that drive debate on policy are a current of American nativism that simmer continually beneath the American social currents. Just as Vice President Mike Pence described the response to the immigrant refugee situation as challenge to our sovereignty, Italian immigrants were described by Higham as suffering from a legitimation of violence against them.


Higham wrote of the vigilante justice as “[t]he distinctive nativism which swarthy paesani experienced took the guise of social discipline applied to alleged acts of homicide.”[13] This is shocking similar to the rationale given for the killing of twelve Jewish members of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 28, 2018, by Robert J. Bowers just after President Trump declared the caravan contained members of middle eastern countries, insinuating terrorists were travelling among the refugees. The shooter had declared on social media posts that, “[I] can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”[14] Robert Bowers claimed he was protecting society, just as Higham described was done when Italians were lynched over one hundred years ago.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of the evil that men do as a mistake of understanding. She wrote, “No man chooses evil because it it evil, he only mistakes it for happiness, the goodness he seeks.” [15] Breaking our cycle of misunderstanding and evil doing toward immigration will release the democracy of the United States from manipulation through education and understanding. It will help to separate the plight of immigrants seeking a better life and the plots of the United States government. The blending of the covert actions taken by U.S. agents in Latin America and elsewhere need to be reveals for the manipulation they represent. The manipulation of the people of other countries and the blinding of the people of the United States to the machinations of the powerful elite. It will spare the innocent from attacks by nativists who see evil where there is none. Breaking this cycle will follow the theme of equality, democracy and opportunity that the United States was founded to achieve.






[6]Bayoumi, Moustafa. This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. New York University Press, 2015. pg.151




[10] Higham, John. Strangers in the Land Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. Rutgers University Press, 2011. Pg. 90

[11] Buff, Rachel Ida. “The Deportation Terror.” American Quarterly 60, no. 3 (2008): 523-51. doi:10.1353/aq.0.0028.

[12]  Bayoumi, Moustafa. This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. New York University Press, 2015. pg. 131

[13]Higham, pg. 90


[15] Wollstonecraft, Mary, and Janet Todd. Political Writings. Oxford University Press, 1994.


“‘Stop Lying to Us’: Ingraham Blasts Durbin for ‘Tired Trope’ About Jobs Americans Won’t Do.” Fox News. February 14, 2018. http://insider.foxnews.com/2018/02/14/laura-ingraham-blasts-dick-durbin-tired-trope-about-jobs-americans-wont-do.

Associated Press. “AP FACT CHECK: Trump Spreads Falsehoods on Immigration.” Chicago Sun-Times. November 03, 2018. https://chicago.suntimes.com/crime/ap-fact-check-trump-spreads-falsehoods-immigration/.

Bayoumi, Moustafa. This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. New York University Pres, 2015.

Beeton, Dan. “Investigation Reveals New Details of US Role in 2009 Honduras Military Coup | Press Releases.” CEPR. http://cepr.net/press-center/press-releases/investigation-reveals-new-details-of-us-role-in-2009-honduras-military-coup.

Buff, Rachel Ida. “The Deportation Terror.” American Quarterly 60, no. 3 (2008): 523-51. doi:10.1353/aq.0.0028.

Gallup, Inc. “Americans Oppose Border Walls, Favor Dealing With DACA.” Gallup.com. June 20, 2018. https://news.gallup.com/poll/235775/americans-oppose-border-walls-favor-dealing-daca.aspx.

Higham, John. Strangers in the Land Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. Rutgers University Press, 2011.

“Laura Ingraham: Media Rolls out Red Carpet for Invading Horde – I Mean ‘caravan’.” Fox News. https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/laura-ingraham-media-rolls-out-red-carpet-for-invading-horde-i-mean-caravan.

Theintercept. “How Pentagon Officials May Have Encouraged a 2009 Coup in Honduras.” The Intercept. August 29, 2017. https://theintercept.com/2017/08/29/honduras-coup-us-defense-departmetnt-center-hemispheric-defense-studies-chds/.

Turkewitz, Julie, and Kevin Roose. “Who Is Robert Bowers, the Suspect in the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting?” The New York Times. October 27, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/robert-bowers-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooter.html.

Wollstonecraft, Mary, and Janet Todd. Political Writings. Oxford University Press, 1994.

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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