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Debunking White Nationalist Narratives About Immigration and the Border – A Short Resource Guide

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White supremacist conspiracy theories about non-white migrants replacing white people and precipitating the downfall of the nation have percolated for over a century. Its modern incarnation, the “great replacement theory,” had previously been confined to the dark corners of American politics, but in the last few years, politicians and pundits have ushered this deadly, racist fiction into the mainstream. They falsely and absurdly assert that non-white migrants and asylum seekers constitute a literal “invasion,” claiming they are part of an intentional plot to  “replace” the population and culture of the United States with allegedly pliant non-white immigrants. Most Americans first learned about this racist, anti-semitic lie when they saw videos of white nationalists chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “you will not replace us” during the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017. Since then, far too many political leaders have come to adopt those bigoted ideas as their own, particularly when it comes to new immigration and descriptions of the southern border. To be crystal clear, when elected officials employ this rhetoric, they are echoing the false conspiracy theories of deadly domestic terrorists and are actively fueling an ongoing threat to public safety. This nativist narrative is as dangerous as it is false. 

Below is a short resource guide to provide the facts and name the harms of promoting white nationalist rhetoric and conspiracies about immigration and the border: 

  • Multiple deadly domestic terrorist attacks have been motivated by the white nationalist “invasion” and “replacement” conspiracies.  It was chanted in the streets of Charlottesville in 2017, posted online before a man murdered 11 in Pittsburgh in 2018, shared in racist screeds before the murder in Poway and the murder of 23 in El Paso in 2019, believed by those who attacked the Capitol in 2021, and copied by the gunman who killed ten people in Buffalo in May 2022. The dehumanizing and deadly “invasion” and “replacement” conspiracies have a pattern that has built a horrific body count and have no place anywhere in our political discourse. 
  • Rhetoric that describes migrants as an “invasion” is inexorably tied to the great replacement conspiracy theory.  We know this because the peddlers of the conspiracy theory link them together, as do the terrorists in their screeds. Nor is the language of “invasion” all that subtle, it argues falsely that migrants are seeking entry with coordinated and malicious intent. It is the “invasion” of non-white migrants from the global south that the racist conspiracy theory defines as the replacers with “the Jews” or “elites” or “the Left” that are coordinating that invasion. Describing migrants as an “invasion” is not just mere hyperbole. It cannot be disconnected from the violent hate it inspires.    
  • The DHS Secretary confirmed that the use of  “invasion” and “replacement” conspiracies by elected leaders fuels the threat of violence. In July 2023, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas confirmed in testimony before Congress that when Members of Congress use great replacement conspiracy theory language like describing migrants as an “invasion,” it “fuels the threat landscape we encounter.”. Tasked with combating threats to the homeland, Members of Congress who employ “invasion” and “replacement” conspiracies are actively making the Secretary’s job harder and increasing the threat to public safety. 
  • No, the Constitution does not provide justification for states to adopt war powers to expel migrants by declaring an “invasion.” In an attempt to turn this conspiracy into policy the purveyors of this rhetoric attempt to hide behind the Constitution, citing Article 4 Section 4, which states can act to defend against an “invasion.” George Mason University, Law Professor Ilya Somin refutes this absurd legal argument in biting detail, here and here. Nor is this a novel argument, multiple states were laughed out of court in the 90’s trying to claim the same war powers against migrants under this invasion clause. At the time, the 2nd Circuit court clearly defined the section, writing: “In order for the state to be afforded the protection of the Invasion Clause, it must be exposed to armed hostility from another political entity, such as another state or foreign country that is intending to overthrow the state’s government.” Desperate families fleeing for their lives seeking legal entry through the asylum system do not remotely rise to that definition, which exposes this defense strategy as the crackpot white nationalism it truly is.
  • Experts in the field are clear about the connection between the “invasion” and “replacement” conspiracies and the rise of racist political violence. Dr. Heidi Beirich, the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, draws a direct connection between the rhetoric and the violence, saying, “When migrants are described as invaders, that leads to violence,” she said. “Because how else does one stop an invasion?” In May 2023, testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee, Jewish Council for Public Affairs CEO, Amy Spitalnick said when “elected officials, pundits, candidates, others who have normalized and mainstreamed the white supremacist views like the Great Replacement theory, talking about things like an invasion… what that does is then give license to the violent extremists…” Find more examples here.
  • Academic research points to a conclusive connection between dehumanizing rhetoric from elected officials and a climate that courts violence and threatens public safety.  For one example, in April 2021, Daniel L. Byman, the Director and Professor of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, wrote: “Incendiary rhetoric also creates a more dangerous political climate in general. An analysis of the manifesto issued by the El Paso shooter Patrick Crusius, who killed 23 people, mostly of Hispanic heritage, found that he used words like ‘invasion’ and ‘replacement,’ drawing on conspiracy theories promoted by conservative media hosts. Another study found that politicians’ hate speech increases political polarization and that this, in turn, makes domestic terrorism more likely.” Find more examples here.
  • The intelligence community has made it abundantly clear that violent domestic extremism motivated in part by white nationalist ideologies is the greatest terror threat facing the homeland. DHS, the FBI, and the Justice Department have testified that the threat from violent domestic extremists is a leading terrorist concern. In November 2022, December 2022, and again in May 2023, DHS issued memos warning about threats to migrants and infrastructure at the southern border in response to anti-immigrant-related concerns. In May 2023,  DHS issued a memo warning that “Likely targets of potential violence include US critical infrastructure, faith-based institutions, individuals or events associated with the LGBTQIA+ community, schools, racial and ethnic minorities, and government facilities and personnel, including law enforcement.” This threat is ongoing, and the continued ubiquity of nativist narratives makes this problem worse.  
  • Dog-whistles for the great replacement conspiracy theory still advance the racist fiction. Politicians and pundits don’t often use the most explicitly antisemitic and racist versions of the great replacement conspiracy theory but use coded language to arrive at the same destination. As an excellent resource from Human Rights First explains: “Dog whistles for this conspiracy include ‘voter replacement’ or statements claiming increases in border crossings are ‘intentional.’” 
  • Members of the 118th Congress have frequently amplified the white nationalist “invasion” conspiracy theory in their official capacity. At least 34 members of the 118th Congress have amplified the white nationalist “invasion” conspiracy theory over 90 times in their official capacity in the first seven months of their term. and seven pieces of legislation that employ the “invasion” conspiracy theory that 47 different members have co-sponsored at least one of these pieces of legislation. On June 22, 2023, by a vote of 219 – 208, the House voted to refer H.Res.503, the Biden impeachment resolution sponsored by Rep. Lauren Boebert, to the Committees even as it relied on the “invasion” conspiracy theory. All Republicans present voted yes, while all Democrats present voted no. The Republican House Majority has also invited at least 15 witnesses who had previously promoted the racist fiction to testify before Congress.
  • The “invasion” and “replacement” conspiracies have been adopted as central political campaign messaging. America’s Voice has also identified over 700 examples of Republicans echoing these white nationalist conspiracy theories in the ‘22 election cycle and well over 600 times since the attack in Buffalo in May 2022. Three of the Republican presidential candidates, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Mike Pence have all made the white nationalist “invasion” conspiracy theory a centerpiece of their immigration plans.   
  • Doubling down on these deadly racist lies over the last year hasn’t been Republicans’ only option.  As recently as 2019, then-GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy removed then-Rep. Steve King (R-IA) from his committee assignments because of his use of white nationalist language. He has not taken similar actions against Members of the current Congress.
  • Numerous Democrats have warned of the deadly consequences of the normalization of the white nationalist “invasion” conspiracy theories. In February 2023, House Oversight Committee Ranking Member Jamie Raskin asked Members of the Committee to sign a bipartisan letter condemning the great replacement theory — and all 26 GOP members pointedly refused. “The invasion narrative some members push in this hearing room is bigoted, fact-free, and dangerous…we can draw a straight line from the hateful rhetoric we hear from some congressional Republicans to that [the white nationalist terror attack on El Paso in 2019] tragedy,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), the ranking Member on the House Judiciary Committee in August 2023.  Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) pushed back on the great replacement theory rhetoric in a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing in June, saying: “I also want to take exception to the term ‘invasion’…there is a long history of that word of ‘invasion’ of immigrants coming into our country… by white supremacists in their fearmongering… I take incredible exception to that word ‘invasion.’ We are not being invaded, people are coming here to seek asylum, as is the history of the United States.” In June 2023,  Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) said in a Committee hearing: “It’s very important to understand that words have meaning … the person who issued a racist manifesto right before he went on a deadly mass shooting spree in El Paso specifically used the words immigrant invasion. So I would respectfully urge my colleagues on the other side to not use words like that because whether they intend them or not to be utilized in violent ways, they are utilized in that way.”
  • These white nationalist conspiracy theories help underwrite the attacks on American democracy. Falsely asserting that forced global migration is part of a nefarious plot to secure a permanent electoral majority for Democrats strikes at the heart of the American promise of a multi-racial democracy. While often advanced in the mainstream as part of the push for extreme anti-immigrant policies, the great replacement theory reinforces the fictions of election deniers.  
  • White supremacist, antisemitic, and other forms of bigoted political violence is on the rise. A 2021 FBI report found that hate crimes were at a 12-year high, with data from 2022 indicating a similar disturbing increase. The Anti-Defamation League released a report in March 2023 that found antisemitic incidents increased 36% in 2022, the highest level recorded since 1979. Pew Research also found in a 2021 survey found: “32% of Asian adults say they have feared someone might threaten or physically attack them – a greater share than other racial or ethnic groups. The vast majority of Asian adults (81%) also say violence against them is increasing” Not unrelated, Reuters released a report in August 2023 that political violence is at a 50-year high.   
  • Several top Former Trump administration officials and allies are behind the push to adopt the white nationalist “invasion” rhetoric and declarations. In October 2021, the short-tenured Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, Ken Cuccinelli, laid out the far-fetched constitutional argument for using the invasion conspiracy to undermine federal immigration law and declare war on migrants. Former ICE Acting Director Tom Holman and Former Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan have also both vigorously pushed the invasion declaration scheme. Morgan attended the first press conference of local Texas municipalities issuing declarations of invasion in July 2022. While Holman pushed Texas Governor Greg Abbott to adopt the position privately and publicly. Top Republican party activists, like Charlie Kirk in 2022, have called for embracing the “invasion” conspiracy theory as a litmus test for candidates.  
  • The press has extensively reported on the disturbing adoption of the great replacement conspiracy theory by leading figures in the Republican Party. Numerous headlines have also noted the troubling reality that Republican elected officials have come to embrace this deadly rhetoric. See examples here, here, here, here, and here
  • While exacerbating an ongoing domestic terror threat, the hyped terror threat at the border isn’t real. Yes, there are individuals on the terrorist watch list who are intercepted at the U.S. borders, but there are some key facts to keep in mind. First and foremost, the numbers that are given are of people who have been intercepted by CBP, a fact that is indicative of the department doing its job. Assertions to the contrary are purely speculative fearmongering premised on the alleged incompetence of the CBP. The most individuals intercepted by CBP on the list was in FY 2019 under the Trump administration, and as has been the case since FY2017, most of those identified are along the northern, not the southern border. And while there has been an uptick of individuals apprehended in between ports of entry, “It’s likely that 95%+ people who are flagged on the watchlist are ex-rebels from Colombia, not international terrorists,” wrote  American Immigration Council’s Aaron Reichlin Melnick. Additionally, DHS has repeatedly outlined that the terrorist threat landscape has shifted, noting that threats from foreign terrorists still exist, but the greater threat comes from violent domestic extremists.