As he was bashing the Biden administration’s immigration policy Tuesday, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) expressed a sudden, deep concern about certain super-spreader events.
“There are super-spreader caravans coming across our southern border,” he said at a House GOP leadership press conference. “I think it’s an interesting misplaced priority that the Biden administration’s agenda is to open America’s borders and close America’s schools.”
Scalise stood in for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) whose office reportedly said he had a scheduling conflict. At a recent GOP leadership presser, there was a tense moment when McCarthy and House Republican conference chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) disagreed on the role former President Donald Trump should play at CPAC.
Scalise’s comment is a very selective about-face for a party that has generally staked out a position dismissing COVID-19 restrictions and advocating for the opening of schools and communities.
It’s also a throwback. Fear-mongering over “caravans” of undocumented immigrants was a frequent conservative talking point during the Obama and Trump eras — particularly in the run up to elections. Trump sent a troop surge to the border and peppered his speeches with embellished warnings about an invading mob.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 percent accurate,” a senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast in 2018. “This is the play.”
Trump and his allies introduced different flavors of the caravan fear-mongering, including that philanthropist George Soros was paying for it and that “Middle Easterners” were mixed in with the group.
BREAKING: Footage in Honduras giving cash 2 women & children 2 join the caravan & storm the US border @ election time. Soros? US-backed NGOs? Time to investigate the source! pic.twitter.com/5pEByiGkkN
— Rep. Matt Gaetz (@RepMattGaetz) October 17, 2018
(The video in Gaetz’s tweet was actually taken in Guatemala.)
The caravan fear-mongering spawned a whole universe of conspiracy theories with social media posts claiming to show the caravan beating up Mexican law enforcement and burning American flags going viral.
Republicans became especially fixated on the caravan line in the lead-up to the 2018 elections when a few thousand people, mostly from Honduras, were fleeing violence and instability. Fox News gave the caravan wall-to-wall coverage.
“That is an assault on our country and in that caravan you have some very bad people and we can’t let that happen to our country,” Trump said then at a Houston rally. “I think the Democrats had something to do with it.”
President Joe Biden, then mulling a bid for the Oval Office, dismissed Trump’s rhetoric.
“The caravan is 2,000 miles away. He’s making it sound like they’re breaking through the border,” he said. “This is hysteria on his part. Let it calm down.”
Scalise seems to be trotting out the same playbook now as Biden deals with a surge of migrants at the border, many of them unaccompanied children. The President wants to overhaul the immigration system, easing the way for asylum seekers, expanding legal opportunities for foreign workers and reducing mass deportations.
But the House has already opted not to vote on the comprehensive immigration bill, backed by Biden, this month in favor of dealing with other legislation. At the moment, the legislation would face a likely death in the Senate if it ever arrives, since it would need 10 Republican votes.