Republicans are using the same out-of-date and out-of-context images over and over again to create a xenophobic boogyman. We provide the context that belies their racist midterm narrative.
Republicans Monica De La Cruz and Alan Sims are both first-time candidates competing in crowded Republican primaries who recently went up with their first TV ads in Texas’ 15th Congressional District and Georgia’s 10th Congressional District respectively. These ads are notable only insofar as they each employ two of the most popular images Republicans use to construct their anti-immigrant stalking horse. America’s Voice ad tracking project has noted the frequency of this particular set of out-of-context images. Republican primary ads from across the country – and likely numerous general election ads – will use the exact same imagery used by Da La Cruz and Sims. So it is worth providing some basic context to the imagery Republicans are spending millions of dollars to distribute with the hopes of activating racial anxieties in voters. The context here belies the xenophobic narrative they look to construct and reveals the strategic and cynical nature of Republicans’ current immigration politics.
Throughout this year Republicans will breathlessly warn of the dangers of “open borders.” While this warning is pure political fiction – Biden is arresting and detaining more immigrants at the border than his predecessor – Republicans also fail to provide any reasonable solutions, preferring to have the issue to demagogue. In lieu of solutions, on immigration or otherwise, Republicans create a xenophobic boogeyman for voters to mobilize against. The ads use subtle and coded messaging to mask explicit calls to racial division, They rely on out-of-context imagery as a building block to activate unconscious racial anxieties around scarcity of resources, personal and public safety, and to trigger the fear that white people are being forgotten or overlooked. Let’s take a look at the four most common images they deploy for this tactic.
IMAGE 1: Migrants running underneath a bridge – fleeing teargas under the Trump administration
Alan Sims is one of a dozen Republicans looking to succeed Rep. Jody Hice (R) who is retiring from the seat to run a GOP primary challenge against Georgia’s Secretary of State Brian Raffensperger. Georgia’s 10th Congressional District is a solid +24 R, so the winner of the Republican primary on May 24 or the runoff in June will likely head to congress next year. To win allegiance from the Republican base, Sims is looking to xenophobic dog-whistling to signal his nativist credentials. To do so, he uses a clip that shows the backs of a few dozen migrants running underneath a bridge hoping to create a visual of dangerous chaos. The ads layers an ominous red filter over the video clip while a voiceover falsely asserts that “Biden’s open border policies have caused millions of illegals to flood our border.” Sims’ ad never explicitly mentions race or outlines the direct fears voters should have of the foreign non-white other but the visual and audio clues lead toward that conclusion.
In reality, this popular clip that Sims employs for a chaotic scene indicative of Biden’s “open borders,” was taken during the Donald Trump administration as asylum seekers, including women and children, fled tear gas shot into the crowd by US authorities.
The November 25, 2018 video clip was the culmination of factors the Trump administration had been intentionally cultivating for some time. The scene was set at the San Ysidro port of entry, the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere. That Sunday, Trump unexpectedly tweeted “No crossings!” And within hours this massive port of entry was closed with little explanation. Additionally, the Trump administration had been intentionally slowing the processing of asylum claims leaving asylum seekers trapped in a precarious waiting game, some of whom had already been there for over a month. Then U.S. Customs and Border Protection shot teargas into a crowd of asylum seekers, many of whom were children, sending everyone fleeing for more breathable air.
Likely those who remember this incident will not be familiar with the Republican ad clip but instead, the harrowing photo from Kim Kyung-Hoon of Reuters of a mother frantically fleeing the tear-gas while clutching, almost dragging her two daughters away from the gas.
Republicans like Sims use this clip without any of this relevant context for their own cynical political ends. The choices here are quite revealing.
IMAGE 2: Two men climb the border fence – six years ago from the US side
The other ubiquitous image Sims employs in his ad is of two young men rapidly scaling a border fence in Nogales, Arizona. The men looked skilled at scaling the fence and appear to be carrying a backpack full of drugs. Clearly, this incident is troubling, but Sims, as with the other political campaigns that use this clip, look to use this isolated video clip to create in voters a feeling of threat laden with coded xenophobia through the portrayal of these images. Adding a bit of context here further underscores the strategic use of xenophobia at play here.
First, this clip is nearly six-years-old. The video is from a Mexican news station taken in April 2016. Second, the men shown here are scaling the border fence on the US side fleeing into Mexico. The irony here is also worth acknowledging; the men scale this border fence in less than 15 seconds, which illustrates that physical barriers are not much of a deterrent despite the enthusiasm for this policy from the “build the wall” crowd. All of this dramatically undercuts the fear-based narrative this ad attempts to construct.
Sims plays this clip right before the one described above looking to make the spurious connection between the men in this clip leaving Mexico and the asylum seekers waiting in Mexico in the clip from two years later. The tactical goal here is to eliminate all nuance, turning the border into a symbol of a violent, existential threat to white people.
IMAGE 3: Three tattooed men – a decade-old photo from inside a prison in another country
Monica De La Cruz is running in the open, newly redistricted Texas 15th Congressional District, as Rep. Vicente González who represents the seat now is running in the new 36th District. Republicans are eager to take this seat which now has a slight Republican partisan lean.
De La Cruz is a third-generation immigrant herself, but that did not stop her from using her first TV ad to employ anti-immigrant themes. Her ad features two different but no less widely-used images Republicans deploy to encode their ads with xenophobic anxieties.
It should also be noted that Da La Cruz has the endorsement of third-ranking House Republican Elise Stefanik’s E-PAC, which has sent out fundraising emails featuring this ad and using other anti-immigrant misinformation. And it should be remembered that Stefanik became a purveyor of the dangerous, white nationalist “replacement theory” last fall. Da La Cruz should have to respond to all this in the context of these ads and her opponents and reporters have that opportunity to probe beneath her paid messaging.
Superimposed in the sky, the ad shows three heavily tattooed shirtless men who stare just beyond a gap in the border wall. They are covered in tattoos representing their allegiance to the notorious MS-13 gang, whose roots begin in Los Angeles but are deeply connected to El Salvador. The striking image looks to create a specter of fear about the immigrant just around the corner. As the image appears, De La Cruz says in voice-over, “Biden abandoned us and our border, transforming our country with drugs, gangs, and violence.”
However, this image is not the reality at the border. In fact, this image was taken nearly a decade ago (in 2013) in El Salvador, inside a prison surrounded by the military. Prisoners held a decade ago in a foreign country are a far cry from the menacing ghosts casting a shadow on the southern border depicted in the ad.
IMAGE 4: Black migrants in Del Rio – refugees fleeing violence and natural disasters who were swiftly deported by Biden
De La Cruz also makes use of the only image discussed here that was actually taken during the Biden administration. The image is from September 2021 in Del Rio, Texas as a few thousand mainly Haitian nationals gathered together to seek asylum.
The tactical use of these images looks to encode two ideas to trigger racial anxieties in voters. One, to create the false perception that there is a steady unrelenting flow of non-white migrants coming unimpeded into the United States. The other looks to trigger anti-Black racism centering Black migrants at their moment of desperation. We have already seen this image appear many times in our ad tracking, so the frequency with which we have observed these images deployed to create the subtle racist boogeyman is alarming. We fully expect that these images will be among the most widely circulated in GOP ads throughout the year.
This image too needs context. The month prior to these images Haiti suffered a horrific earthquake that left some 2,200 dead and over 12,000 injured, and greatly damaged the basic infrastructure. In the following days, Tropical Depression Grace made direct landfall on the nation causing further harm and destabilization. Both of these natural disasters came just one month after Haitian President Jovenel Moise was assassinated. More importantly – and disturbingly – almost all of the people who gathered under a bridge near Del Rio – like those in this image – were swiftly deported to Haiti without being able to ask for asylum, one of the most shameful chapters during the Biden administration so far. So, far from an image of open borders, the specific image being used is a reminder of how harsh the Biden administration has become – and a reminder that no matter how harsh Biden becomes, Republicans like De La Cruz will still attack them as too soft on immigrants anyway.