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President Donald Trump is rallying support for Republican candidates in the midterm elections with sweeping rhetoric about Democrats looking out for waves of "illegal aliens" over the interests of Americans.
"The Democrats want to invite caravan after caravan of illegal aliens into our country," Trump said Oct. 26 at a campaign rally in Charlotte, N.C. "And they want to sign them up for free health care, free welfare, free education, and for the right to vote."
A caravan of Central American migrants is in southern Mexico trekking north to the Mexico-U.S. border. Some are fleeing gangs in Central America and plan to request asylum in the United States. Others say they are migrating due to poverty in their home countries. (Here’s what we know about the caravan, and here’s a round-up of misinformation about it.)
The White House did not provide an on-the-record response to back Trump’s claim. Democrats have said immigrants should be allowed the legal right to ask for asylum, but that’s not the same as inviting caravans to come to the United States. They also haven’t said they want to "sign them up" for benefits or to vote illegally, or to go beyond existing laws.
Democrats have largely remained silent about the caravan, focusing instead on Republicans and health care as the Nov. 6 Election Day nears. Some Democrats have said that immigrants seeking asylum should be allowed to go through that legal process, but that’s not necessarily extending an invitation.
CNN’s Jake Tapper in an Oct. 23 interview asked Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to address the Democratic Party’s message about the caravan and whether they’d be allowed to "come in and apply for refugee status."
"We are a nation of laws, and the laws that are on the books deal with issues of refugee and asylum status, and those are the laws that have always applied," Perez said. "It's a humanitarian issue of significance, and our laws require that people be treated with dignity and given that process."
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., made a similar statement.
"Our strength has always been that we are a tolerant country, that we are welcoming in particular those who have fled harm," Harris said Oct. 22 in Iowa, according to CNN. "The idea that we're vilifying any one group, and the fear-mongering — that's not in the best interest of our country."
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer in an Oct. 20 joint statement said Trump was "desperate to change the subject from health care to immigration because he knows that health care is the number one issue Americans care about," adding that Republicans "are making a mess of our health care system."
Pelosi reiterated that message in another statement: "Despite Republicans’ fear-mongering, this group of families may not even make it to the U.S. border, and those migrating for economic reasons will not qualify for asylum."
Caravan members are also not "illegal aliens," said Stephen Legomsky, a professor emeritus at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, who served as chief counsel of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Obama administration.
"Of course the U.S. isn’t obligated to grant asylum to everyone who applies," said Legomsky, "but upon reaching the border they have a legal right, explicitly granted by Congress, to apply for it."
Democrats aren’t saying they want to sign up caravan members for perks upon arrival, much less the right to vote without being U.S. citizens. PolitiFact has repeatedly debunked Trump’s claims of mass voter fraud.
Even if some caravan members were granted asylum and became citizens, it would take several years before they are able to vote for candidates for federal office. (A small number of jurisdictions allow noncitizens to vote in local races.)
"The only caravan members who might one day become eligible to vote would be those who are found to meet all the legal requirements for asylum, later acquire green cards, and then eventually become naturalized citizens," Legomsky said. A person must be a green card holder for at least five years and meet certain other requirement before applying for U.S. citizenship.
If granted asylum, immigrants do become eligible for Medicaid and other forms of government assistance, Legomsky said.
Federal law bars immigrants in the country illegally from most public assistance programs. However, they can receive free school lunches, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and emergency medical care.
"Concern over illegal immigrants placing significant demands on public service is well founded," said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors low immigration levels. "But it is not some moral defect on their part, rather it reflects the very low education levels of this population and resulting low income and them needing services."
A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case also said that immigrants, regardless of immigration status, are allowed free elementary and secondary education. "But immigrant children can’t access that right if they are detained waiting for their asylum hearings, except in a few family detention centers," said Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell Law School.
If caravan members get into the United States and receive emergency medical care, go to public school and get free school lunch, it wouldn’t necessarily be because Democrats "sign them up," it would be because it’s permitted under law. If they eventually obtain U.S. citizenship, they’d be allowed to vote.
Trump said, "The Democrats want to invite caravan after caravan of illegal aliens into our country. And they want to sign them up for free health care, free welfare, free education, and for the right to vote."
A top Democrat said immigrants should be allowed go through the asylum application process, which is available under law. But it’s a stretch for Trump to say that’s an invitation for caravans to come to the United States.
Immigrants granted asylum become eligible for Medicaid and other forms of government assistance. Immigrants in the country illegally can receive emergency medical care and limited access to programs, such as free school lunch and free public education. That wouldn’t be because Democrats "want to sign them up," but because it’s allowed by law.
Trump’s claim also falsely implies Democrats want to rush caravan members in to vote in the midterm elections.
Trump’s claim is inaccurate and a distortion of the facts. We rate it False.
C-SPAN, President Trump Rally in North Carolina, Oct. 26, 2018
PolitiFact, PolitiFact Sheet: What we know about the caravan heading to the United States, Oct. 22, 2018
PolitiFact, Fact-checking misinformation about the migrant caravan, Oct. 25, 2018
CNN, Erin Burnett Outfront show transcript, Oct. 23, 2018
CNN, Kamala Harris stumps for 2018 candidates in Iowa -- as 2020 nears, Oct. 22, 2018
Democraticleader.gov, Joint Statement from Leaders Pelosi and Schumer on President Trump’s Attempt to Change Subject from GOP Making Mess of Health Care System, Oct. 20, 2018; Pelosi Statement on President Trump’s Failed Immigration Policies & Fearmongering Rhetoric, Oct. 26, 2018
Oyez.org, Plyler v. Doe
PolitiFact, Trump says 'time has come' for law restricting federal assistance to immigrants. It already exists, June 27, 2017
PolitiFact Florida, Can noncitizens vote in San Francisco, Takoma Park elections?, Sept. 15, 2017
PolitiFact, Donald Trump's Pants on Fire claim that millions of illegal votes cost him popular vote victory, Nov. 28, 2016
PolitiFact, Donald Trump says there's 'substantial evidence of voter fraud.' There isn't, Jan. 4, 2018
Email interview, Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell Law School, Oct. 31, 2018
Email interview, David A. Martin, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Virginia, Oct. 31, 2018
Email interview, Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, Oct. 31, 2018
Email interview, Stephen Legomsky, an emeritus professor at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Oct. 31, 2018
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