Central American migrants, part of the caravan hoping to reach the U.S. border, get a ride on the bed of a semi flat bed trailer, in Donaji, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. The migrants had already made a grueling 40-mile (65-kilometer) trek from Juchitan, Oaxaca, on Thursday, after they failed to get the bus transportation they had hoped for. But hitching rides allowed them to get to Donaji early, and some headed on to a town even further north, Sayula. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
The migrant caravan headed in the direction of the US has become a central political issue in Tuesday's election © AP

Standing across from Acapulco, a bar where he spent the previous night drinking Tequila, Jason Harlow, a cattle trader, said Donald Trump was clever to use illegal immigration and the caravan of migrants moving through Mexico towards the US as issues to help the Republicans win the midterm elections on Tuesday.

“Immigration is a winning deal for Trump,” Mr Harlow said. “The media tries to say that he’s racist. He’s not. He’s a full believer in legal immigration.” 

With Republicans pessimistic about winning the House, Mr Trump has been furiously campaigning to help them keep control of the Senate. At recent rallies from Texas to Tennessee, Mr Trump has targeted voters such as Mr Harlow by aggressively emphasising law and order and the need to tackle illegal immigration — a theme that helped propel him to victory two years ago.

“Every time you see a Caravan . . . blame the Democrats,” Mr Trump said at a Texas rally for Ted Cruz, the Republican senator being challenged by Beto O’Rourke, whom the president said was a “stone cold phoney” and a “radical, open borders left-winger”. 

Mr Trump has upper the ante over immigration in recent weeks as the caravan of migrants from Honduras has provided him with a perfect opportunity to rally his base.

He has ordered thousands of troops to the border, vowing to send as many as 15,000, and said they should shoot at anyone who throws rocks at them. He also tweeted a video (in which an illegal immigrant convicted of murder boasts about killing police) that, inaccurately, blames Democrats for allowing the man into the US.

Speaking just before Mr O’Rourke held a rally nearby, Mr Harlow said his stance on immigrants was one reason the Democrat would suffer. “O’Rourke wants illegals over here. It’s just for Democrat votes,” he said. “It is a winning position for the Republicans going into the midterms.” 

Demetri photos Jason Harlow
Jason Harlow insists Mr Trump is not a racist: 'he's a full believer in legal immigration.' © Demetri Sevastopulo/FT

Highlighting the divide in the country, Democrats believe that Mr Trump may be going too far for his own good. Speaking at the Six Car Pub, Mr O’Rourke told the Financial Times that the midterms would give voters a stark choice about US values.

“It can be fear and paranoia and hatred and anxiety, or it can be confidence and strength and the kind heartedness by which Texas has so long distinguished itself,” said the former punk rocker who is now a congressman representing El Paso.

Demetri photos Nancy and Abel Bosquez
Nancy and Abel Bosquez say Democratic candidate Beto O'Rourke is gaining support because of his strong pro-immigration stance © Demetri Sevastopulo/FT

Even in conservative cities such as Amarillo, which spans two counties and where Mr Trump won 80 per cent of the vote in 2016, there are signs that the president has over-reached. Nancy Bosquez, a Mexican-American at the rally, said Mr O’Rourke was drawing unexpectedly strong support precisely because of his immigration stance.

“We’ve been in Amarillo over 40 years and I’ve never seen a Democrat candidate garner this kind of support in the Texas panhandle,” said Ms Bosquez.

Two days earlier, when Mr O’Rourke was in Dallas taking selfies with fans, Casey Littlejohn, a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was sympathetic to asylum seekers but that Mr Cruz and Mr Trump were stronger on border security.

“The cartel own the border. We have to actually meet the border with resistance so we can protect our citizens here,” said Mr Casey. “Regardless of where we live in Texas or Tennessee, or anywhere, we have to protect ourselves.”

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump greets the crowd at a campaign rally for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) in Houston, Texas, U.S., October 22, 2018.  REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo
Donald Trump greets the crowd at a campaign rally for Senator Ted Cruz in Houston, Texas © Reuters

Immigration is a key issue in Texas given its border with Mexico and its 40 per cent Latino population. But Mr Trump is also raising fears about illegal immigrants in states such as Tennessee, where the Latino population, while growing, is small. Ann Hauser, a widow in Chattanooga, said she was angry that the government was helping illegal immigrants. “I don’t feel like our money should be going to support immigrants coming here illegally.”

Speaking after she cast her ballot in early voting for Marsha Blackburn, a Republican immigration hardliner running against Democrat Phil Bredesen for the Senate, Ms Hauser said large US cities were “turning into ghettos”. She was energised by the issue even though Hispanics make up less than 6 per cent of Hamilton, her county.

In a campaign video, Ms Blackburn stokes fear about the caravan, saying it includes people from the Middle East (a claim Mr Trump also made with no evidence) and “possibly terrorists” before accusing Mr Bredesen of ignoring the security threat. 

In an interview at a campaign rally, Mr Bredesen, a former Democrat governor in Tennessee, said such attacks pointed to the real problem. “The notion that a group of a few thousand people with no weapons is some kind of security threat to the US just seems silly. Let’s just stop weaponising it . . . and move towards solving the problem.” 

For Donna Ettkin, a retired Jewish woman at an early voting station whose grandparents came illegally from Russia, the debate goes beyond the result of one election. It is existential. She said Mr Trump was creating a toxic environment that scared her. “To me it is very frightening to see this happening in America. It is reminiscent, I think, of what happened in Germany in World War II.” 

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

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