Four years ago, a gunman drove across Texas and committed a racist massacre at a Walmart in El Paso to thwart what he claimed was a “Hispanic invasion.”
Now, an advocacy group launched by former Vice President Mike Pence to support his floundering presidential campaign is setting off alarm bells.
The first point on the Pence group’s immigration policy platform? Direct Congress to pass legislation declaring an “invasion” at the southern border so Texas and other states can militarize the borderlands without federal interference. Critics say the proposal would turn a dangerous conspiracy theory into actual policy, which is already underway in Texas.
Like other Republicans jockeying for national attention, Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott has also embraced dehumanizing rhetoric that conflates migrants and asylum seekers seeking jobs and safety with an invading military force. Now, Abbott’s border militarization policies face international condemnation for extreme cruelty and alleged human rights abuses involving both adults and children. The Pence group’s proposal would give Abbott and other GOP governors with a penchant for punishing immigrants the tools to push the limits further.
Experts on extremism say the word “invasion” is inexorably linked to the “Great Replacement” theory, a debunked conspiracy theory about a covert effort to replace white populations of the United States and other countries with non-white immigrants that has been a mainstay in far right and white nationalist circles for years. Under the leadership of former President Donald Trump, rhetoric about an “invasion” that acts as a dog whistle for nativist fears about white “replacement” has moved from the far right fringe into the mainstream GOP and conservative media.
Lindsay Schubiner, program director at the pro-democracy Western States Center, said the El Paso shooter was not committing a random act of violence when he stormed a busy store with a machine gun and left 23 people dead on August 3, 2019.
“He was motivated by decades [of] anti-immigrant vitriol and white nationalist conspiracy theories that continue to drive anti-democracy actors to violence,” Schubiner said in a statement on Wednesday. “White nationalist and anti-democracy movements have worked to normalize their bigoted ideologies, aided by many in elected office.”
“To make it perfectly clear: elected officials using inflammatory and bigoted language has deadly consequences,” Schubiner added.
Nearly 1,800 miles away from El Paso, the gunman who opened fire, killing 11 worshippers in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 2018, was sentenced to death by a unanimous jury in a federal court on Wednesday. Prosecutors say Robert Bowers planned to kill as many Jewish people as possible after posting antisemitic screeds and targeting a Jewish congregation that he accused of bringing “invaders” into the United States to “kill our people.”
“They believe Jews are responsible for what they call ‘white genocide.’ They really believe white people are the victims of a plan to wipe them out,” said Marilyn Mayo, a senior researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, in a press call on Wednesday.
The Anti-Defamation League says anti-Jewish hate incidents surged by 87 percent in Texas and the broader Southwest last year. Nationally, reports of antisemitic incidents grew by 36 percent to a total of 3,697 in 2020.
Advancing American Freedom, the Pence-affiliated group calling on Congress to declare an “invasion” at the border, did not respond to a request for comment, although it’s unclear if the contact form on the group’s website is working properly. Bogged down by low voter enthusiasm and dismal poll numbers, perhaps Pence’s team is using its advocacy arm to test controversial “invasion” messaging in case it could boost the campaign as Republican primaries loom. As fearmongering about migrants continues, 65 percent of Republican voters say the situation at the border is a “crisis,” compared to just 17 percent of Democrats.
Pence’s allies are far from alone, especially in the GOP. Despite repeated attacks and mass shootings inspired by white nationalist propaganda about an “invasion” of immigrants, at least 34 members of Congress have referred to migrants and asylum seekers arriving at the border as “invaders” or an “invasion” at least 90 times while acting in their official capacity during the 118th Congress, according to the immigration reform group America’s Voice. At least seven pieces of legislation introduced so far this year employ the “invasion” conspiracy theory language.
As the nation observes the grim anniversary of the mass shooting that terrorized El Paso and Latino communities everywhere, watchdogs, civil rights groups and Democrats say the “invasion” rhetoric increasingly deployed by politicians and pundits on the right is not just inspiring shockingly inhumane policies towards migrants. It’s a deadly threat to people already living in the U.S. and countries around the world.
“Engaging in such rhetoric is lethal,” said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, vice president of the Latino rights group UnidosUS, in a press call on Wednesday. “To those attempting to hide behind the thin veneer of ‘immigration debate,’ let’s be clear: You are not fooling anybody.”
Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, said the “deadly lies” about “invasion” and “replacement” that were once relegated to far right and white nationalist circles are now at the heart of the GOP’s political strategy. Look no further than contentious, Republican-led hearings on migrants and the border in the House, or the Republican presidential primary race, where candidates are competing to exploit white anxiety about a diversifying nation.
“Instead of generating a reckoning about the dangers of mainstreaming dangerous conspiracies after the deadly incidents in El Paso, Pittsburgh, and other communities across the U.S, too many Republicans have embraced the use of ‘invasion’ and ‘replacement’ conspiracy language,” Cárdenas told reporters on Wednesday.
More than 160 civil rights and community groups sent a letter this week to congressional leadership of both parties imploring them to “not only condemn references to conspiratorial and bigoted rhetoric, including references to the ‘great replacement’ and an ‘invasion,’ but to encourage the members of your caucus to refrain from using such rhetoric.”
Asking leadership to push back on such rhetoric is not the same as censoring or censuring lawmakers and their speech. However, the Republican majority in the House has already rejected Democrats’ attempts to condemn white supremacy in the wake of the mass shooting at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York, last year, where a gunman targeted and murdered 10 Black people. Republicans would likely paint any call to condemn “invasion” rhetoric as partisan attempt at censorship.
“For the vast majority of Americans, even in this environment where we may be led to believe that people are evenly divided on this issue, the majority of Americans actually consider diversity to be one our strengths,” Martinez De Castro said. “If they are not swayed by the lethal consequences of engaging in this rhetoric or not calling it out, if they are looking at it politically, I think there is an opportunity for members [of Congress] to take a stand.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat representing San Antonio, said the nation faces “a new wave of xenophobic politicians” who embolden “violent people to put their hate into action.” He said Democrats will continue pushing back on the “invasion” narrative.
“That rhetoric and those words also have an effect on politicians across the country,” Castro said. “White supremacy is how you end up with a governor putting up razor wire and refusing to offer water to migrants on the Texas and Mexico border.”
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