President Donald Trump conceded there’s no evidence for his claim that Middle Eastern terrorists are among thousands of migrants traveling from Honduras toward the U.S. border, but blamed Venezuela and unidentified “leftists” for encouraging the so-called caravan.
Trump is trying to make immigration central to the midterm elections next month that will determine whether Republicans maintain control of Congress. He’s expressed outrage about the group of several thousand migrants, which is slowly making its way north from Mexico’s border with Guatemala, and said in a tweet on Monday that the caravan included “unknown Middle Easterners.”
Questioned repeatedly about the claim on Tuesday, Trump conceded that “there’s no proof of anything” but that terrorists “could very well be” among the group. “I think there’s a very good chance you have people in there,” he said.
In a conference call with reporters to discuss new numbers on illegal border crossings, two senior administration officials could not provide evidence for the president’s claim that terrorists are embedded with the migrants. One official referred reporters to Mexican authorities. Mexican officials have not made any statements about people of Middle Eastern descent in the migrant group.
The administration officials asked not to be identified discussing the issue.
Vice President Mike Pence earlier in the day asserted that “it’s inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent in a crowd of more than 7,000 people advancing toward our border.”
Pence also said in remarks at a Washington Post event that “in the last fiscal year, we apprehended more than 10 terrorists or suspected terrorists per day at our southern border.”
The administration officials said Pence spoke inaccurately. The figure he cited was the overall number of known or suspected terrorists stopped from entering the country at all ports of entry. The U.S. maintains a global watch list of people with suspected terrorist connections who can be prevented from entering.
Tyler Houlton, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, later tweeted a message that the caravan includes people “who are gang members or have significant criminal histories.”
He said in another tweet “citizens of countries outside Central America, including countries in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere are currently traveling through Mexico toward the U.S.” He didn’t say whether any of them were in the caravan.
A DHS official declined to answer questions on the tweets. Houlton didn’t provide any evidence to back up his assertions.
Back at the White House, Pence told Trump that the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, had told him the migrant caravan is financed by Venezuela’s government and unspecified leftists.
“And Democrats?” Trump asked.
“Leftist groups,” Pence said.
Border Apprehensions Up
Earlier on Tuesday, Customs and Border Patrol announced that apprehensions of people illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border rose 30 percent in the last fiscal year. The number of migrants who unlawfully entered the U.S. with a family member spiked in September as Trump cast immigration as a crisis.
U.S. officials apprehended 396,579 people between ports of entry on the southwest border between October 2017 and the end of September, CBP reported. That’s up from 303,916 border apprehensions in fiscal 2017, Trump’s first year in office.
The number fluctuates greatly from year to year, however, and border crossings were down from 408,870 in fiscal 2016, the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency. Apprehensions at the southwest border sometimes exceeded 1 million a year under President George W. Bush.
The data indicating a rise in illegal migration was released as Trump has ratcheted up his rhetoric against immigrants before the midterms. The timing of the announcement is consistent with the border patrol’s past practices.
More families are illegally crossing together, the border patrol reported. In September, 16,658 people were caught crossing with at least one other relative, up from just under 13,000 in August and 4,200 in September 2017.
Trump said Monday that he will cut U.S. aid to the three Central American countries that are home to most of the migrants who cross the southern border -- El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. It’s an effort to punish the governments for their citizens’ migrations that may backfire. Much of the money funds counter-narcotics, law enforcement and anti-poverty programs that Trump’s critics say can help make the countries more desirable places to live.
The press office of the Honduran presidency didn’t immediately reply to written questions seeking comment. A Venezuela Information Ministry official declined to comment.