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A Return to the Dangerous and Dehumanizing “Invasion” Rhetoric?

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Over the past week, Rep. Jodey Arrington (TX-19), has been on a press tour to promote his new House resolution with a dangerous and absurd narrative about a migrant “invasion” at the southern border. Rep.  Arrington, who represents an expansive, deeply red district in the northern part of Texas, claimed, “the federal government has failed to protect against this invasion.” Asserting that “because of the paramilitary sophistication of the network of cartels who are totally in control of the border and the influx of criminality it is absolutely an invasion.” Pointing to the Constitution for the core of his pitch, Rep. Arrington suggested this alleged invasion is not merely a rhetorical flourish but instead something tangible that presumably needs to be met with military force. 

Rep. Arrington’s rhetoric appears to be an extreme edge of the cynical manufactured political frame of a “Biden border crisis” that the GOP has been peddling since the beginning of the year. 

The revival of this particular dehumanizing xenophobic language of “invasion” should be deeply concerning given its deadly echoes in our recent history, as as well as its connection to leading anti-immigrant hate groups and white nationalist conspiracy theories

On August 3, 2019, a white nationalist manifesto appeared online claiming an attack that ended with the murder of 23 people in a Walmart in El Paso, was in “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Less than a year prior, in October of 2018, a man walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 people, targeting the Synagogue because they help “bring invaders in that kill our people.”

These horrific attacks followed a sustained campaign of tweets from former President Trump and paid political ads from Republican candidates that employed the inflammatory and violence-triggering migrant “invasion” narrative. For example:

  • In June 2018, Donald Trump tweeted, “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our country.”  
  • Suggesting state violence for migrants in October 2018, Trump tweeted, “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” 
  • In November 2018, Trump tweeted, “The U.S. is ill-prepared for this invasion.” 
  • “I just got back [from the southern border] and it is a far worse situation than almost anyone would understand, an invasion!” Trump said on January 11, 2019. 
  • “More troops being sent to the Southern Border to stop the attempted Invasion of Illegals,” Trump tweeted on January 31, 2019
  • “I am stopping an invasion,” Donald Trump wrote on Twitter in March. 
  • Trump warned that “millions of people [were coming to the border]… to INVADE the US,” on June 1, 2019
  • He said Mexico must “stop the invasion of our Country by Drug Dealers, Cartels, Human Traffickers, Coyotes and Illegal Immigrants,” on June 2, 2019 
  • From January to August in 2019, the Trump Campaign ran over 2,000 Facebook ads that warned of an immigrant “invasion,” according to a report by the New York Times
  • Beyond Trump, other Republicans like Wendy Rodgers, who was running for the AZ-01 House seat in 2018, ran ads that boldly claimed, “Arizona is ground zero for the illegal alien invasion.”
  • In Virginia, Republican Senate candidate in 2018,  Corey Stewart, ran ads that said, “illegal aliens invade America and Tim Kaine and the Democrats encourage it… if they win millions more will follow overwhelming our hospitals, schools and social services smuggling drugs and sex trafficking.” 
  • In May 2019, then-candidate for the Alabama Senate seat, Tommy Tuberville, ran Facebook ads that read, “Let’s call this what it is — an invasion of our country.” 

It appears some part of the GOP is again looking to use this dangerous narrative of a migrant “invasion” in their paid political advertising. Since the beginning of this month, we have identified two Facebook ad campaigns using this language. One from Rep. Tom Tiffany (WI-07), in a safe red seat covering most of the northern part of Wisconsin, and the other in from the Texas gubernatorial Republican primary challenger, Don Huffines. These are small ad buys, but these Facebook ads should still be concerning in their own right, if not a troubling sign of the rhetoric we might see as the 2022 midterms start to heat up.   

Additionally, far-fight media has similarly begun to wade into the “invasion” frame. Back in March, right-wing influencers were spreading the false narrative of an orchestrated migrant invasion. A Daily Caller headline from May 28, 2021 read, “Biden Admin Plans To Direct $861 Million To Central American Countries So That Their People Won’t Invade The Border.” On June 7, Tomi Lahren, the host of FOX Nation, introduced a segment hitting Vice President Kamala Harris for not addressing the “mass illegal invasion into our country.” But the day before, Lahren suggested an even more concerning narrative.

Exactly five months after the white nationalist terror attack on the U.S. Capitol building, Lahren Tweeted, “It’s voter fraud codified. The Democrats want illegals voting. That’s why they are allowing this open border invasion.” Revisiting an older lie in the context of the “Big Lie,” Lahren’s xenophobic fiction further situates the “invasion” rhetoric in the recent history of racialized political violence. A xenophobic fiction believed by Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right paramilitary Oath Keepers, whose organization may have played a central role in organizing the coup attempt attack on January 6. Warning of migrant “invasion” in 2018, Rhodes said

That’s the endgame for the Democratic Party, it’s what they want, which is to bring in more voters that they think will vote Democrat. That’s the whole point. And so we have to stop that. It’s an existential threat to the survival of our nation.

The language matters here. Rhetoric can have deadly downstream consequences, and returning to the dehumanizing, violence-inducing, xenophobic language of “invasion” should be off the political table. It is false hyperbole at best and intentionally dangerous at worst. FOX News and other media platforms should not amplify this dangerous false narrative. At the very least, Facebook should not run paid ads with “invasion” xenophobic dog-whistles in them. Not least of which is because these ads appear to violate their policies to “protect immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from ads suggesting these groups are inferior or expressing contempt, dismissal or disgust directed at them.”

However, we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting on Rep. Arrington, the GOP, or their allies in the far-right media to moderate their tone. They won’t. They will likely continue to make xenophobic dog-whistles central to messaging, if not increasing the volume on these messages. Instead, we should understand that strategic racism is an integral part of the GOP electoral message moving forward because every Republican seems to more concerned about being as far right as possible to attract Trump voters and fend off primary challenges, including those funded by Trump.

As our research has shown, this message strategy might yield results in the echo chamber of right-wing media and in some primaries, but drives away more voters than it attracts among the general public. So regardless of its impact on inciting violence, this GOP messaging strategy has extremely limited efficacy.