A brief and disgusting history of the right's immigrant 'invasion' rhetoric
What does the word “invasion” mean? Can it be a neutral word? Maybe it can even be a nice word? Can you be invaded by people who wish you well? These are the kinds of questions that, it seems, Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade wants you to ponder, in light of his defense of President Charlottesville’s use of the term—something he has done both directly and through campaign advertising (2,200 Trump Facebook ads employed the term).
Kilmeade said, "If you use the term 'invasion,' it's not anti-Hispanic, it's a fact." Before I address its content, let me point you to perhaps the perfect puncturing in response to this dreck, from Twitter: “I mean, if Jews control the media and banking, it’s not anti-Semitic to say so. It’s a fact.” Even Kilmeade himself revealed the hate behind the term when he continued his defense: “If the Russians were coming through Alaska, through Canada, the president would be using the same language.” Think about this. “The Russians” clearly invokes a military threat, i.e., an actual invasion from a powerful country with a major army and nuclear weapons. Whether or not Russia already controls our president is another matter.
So, to answer my initial question: The word “invasion” clearly implies that the invaders are one’s enemy, a potential conqueror and oppressor. It is a word directly intended to provoke an aggressive, defensive response. One must fight to repel an invader. Research shows that this kind of rhetoric can indeed incite violence.
And that’s exactly what happened last week. The El Paso terrorist defended his white nationalist mass murders as follows: “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” He is parroting the rhetoric he heard. Brian Kilmeade can pretend that the term “invasion” isn’t anti-Hispanic, but the El Paso terrorist targeted Hispanic people for death—letting white and black customers escape the Walmart while executing anyone he thought was Mexican. Sorry, Mr. Kilmeade. It’s a fact.
And President Individual 1 is far from the first right-wing figure to describe undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers coming across our southern border as an invasion.
According to Facebook's ad archive, Trump has run around 2,200 FB ads since May 2018 mentioning the word "invasion.… https://t.co/R0ujNHrM2Z— Natalie Martinez (@Natalie Martinez)1564935415.0
Suffice it to say that just about every individual on the right, as well as right-wing organizations such as the NRA, have dehumanized immigrants, in most cases Latinos, or Mexicans specifically, using terms like “invasion” or “invaders.” In my own research, presented in my new book, The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump, I discuss in detail Limbaugh’s racist fearmongering around this issue. I’ll present the worst of his rhetoric below.
On April 26, 2010, in a discussion about Arizona’s immigration law SB 1070, Limbaugh stoked fear about supposedly lax border security leading to more crime as well as potential terrorist attacks waged by Muslims: “You got Hezbollah in Arizona, you got Mexican drug cartels operating in Arizona, you got a steady stream of illegals over the border and you’ve got people being killed.”
Limbaugh warned on the same day that, whereas conservatives “want” immigrants “who want to assimilate and become Americans,” the results of Democratic plans for immigration reform would be an “influx of people who are illegal and are not interested in assimilating.” He also stated that this support for “amnesty for illegals is the greatest evidence” of President Obama’s supposed desire to divide Americans along racial and ethnic lines. Limbaugh also spoke of “an invading army of illegal aliens” who wanted to “come here and destroy what this is for everybody else,” and asked whether it was “fair that we have to pay the cost of dealing with the crime caused by these illegals.” In statements like these, we can clearly see the anti-immigration sentiments that Donald Trump would use to mobilize his supporters in 2016 and beyond.
On April 28 of that same year, Limbaugh connected a number of race-baiting issues, including immigration, voter fraud, and voter ID laws, by accusing the president of “siding against us ... the law-abiding citizens of this country ... the legal immigrants ... He goes to bat for the illegals ... Because it is their votes he needs. And he can’t get those votes if … voter photo ID is required at the polling place. That’s what’s undergirding all this.”
On May 6, Limbaugh repeated a false statistic that Fox & Friends had shared with its audience, namely that “illegal aliens” killed 2,000 people in the U.S. each year. This number was derived by extrapolating from the murder rate in the home countries of undocumented immigrants, adjusted for an estimate of their age breakdown (young adults commit more murders). Thus, the number Limbaugh cited had absolutely no connection to actual people being murdered in the United States.
This was by no means the only time Limbaugh spoke about crimes being committed by undocumented immigrants or people crossing the Mexican border illegally (he did so at least 14 times between April 27, 2010, and July 29, 2015). Here he again prefigured a theme Trump would employ prominently on the campaign trail and in the White House. For example, only four days after his inauguration, Trump authorized the establishment of the VOICE (Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement) Office, which, among other tasks, publicizes such crimes. In truth, recent research shows that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans, and having more of the undocumented in a region correlates to lower overall rates of property crime and violent crime. Of course, that was not something Limbaugh—or Trump—wanted their followers to hear.
On Aug. 12, 2013, Limbaugh continued to raise fears about the effects of increased immigration, relating reports of “illegal immigrants from Mexico requesting asylum ... overwhelming immigration agents in San Diego,” as well as of “Syrian refugees ... now pouring into” the United States. The latter comment was aimed at raising concerns about terrorism. More recently, Trump has also spoken repeatedly in similar terms about terrorists coming into the U.S. through Mexico. For example, on Jan. 4, 2019, he said that, “We have terrorists coming through the southern border because they find that’s probably the easiest place to come through.” The truth, according to Trump’s own State Department, is that there is “no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States.”
On that same 2013 show, Limbaugh also talked in big-picture terms, stating that “we’re in the middle of one of the greatest demographic upheavals that this country has ever experienced ... an identity transformation ... sponsored and engineered by” President Obama. The host stated on Jan. 8, 2014, that the Democrats’ “whole agenda has been to destroy what you and I call the distinct
American culture,” and lamented that “our elected officials ... don’t think that amnesty or immigration is a crisis.” Trump offered parallel sentiments on multiple occasions in 2018. For example, he contended that Europe made a “big mistake” letting in “millions ... who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” He further called this decision a “shame” that “changed the fabric of Europe,” before concluding, “You are losing your culture.”
On July 4, 2014, President Obama praised America’s diversity and, regarding immigration, said that we should not “make it harder for the best and the brightest to come here.” Limbaugh quoted this line three days later and shot back that “this invasion of 300,000 [undocumented immigrants] since April represents the best and the brightest—and if you oppose it, then you are, what? Well, racist and bigoted ... Maybe it isn’t an official invasion when the country’s leaders invite the invaders
in. That’s what’s happening here.” Limbaugh was not only criticizing Obama through the prism of race; he was also telling his white audience that being called a racist was a reaction to you speaking the truth. This was how the host frequently undermined the credibility of anyone who pointed out how divisive his rhetoric was. Such an argument also ultimately benefited Trump by inoculating him, at least for many conservatives, against charges of racism.
Limbaugh continued to race-bait and dehumanize immigrants even after Obama left office. Remember the caravan? In the days leading up to the 2018 midterms, Republican candidates and media figures couldn’t stop fearmongering about it. Here’s Limbaugh on Oct. 22, making clear the need to use force against those coming across the Mexican border:
This is an invasion. This is a foreign invasion, whether they’re armed or not. Some of them, no doubt, are. The U.S. military is perfect. We could send the military anywhere on our border to deter any invasion, military or otherwise. We’re not violating any law here. That’s exactly what this is, and it must be looked at that way.
And here’s the host on June 6, 2019, invoking the term to describe asylum-seekers:
Just to put this in perspective, yesterday officials from the CPB, Border Patrol, announced that agents encountered more than 144,000 undocumented illegal aliens at the border in May. In one month. Some might say an invasion force similar to that which stormed the beaches at D-Day. Same number of people, pretty much. Now, they're not armed, and it's not a military invasion obviously, but it nevertheless is an invasion.
When Trump shut down our government for 35 days in late 2018 and early 2019 over his desire to “build the wall,” Limbaugh was right at the center of it, doing his best to whip his audience into a frenzy of fear about immigrants changing our culture. On Dec. 20, he intoned that the wall was “not just a campaign promise ... It is about the American way of life.” We need the wall to keep out the invaders, and to preserve what makes us America. And if some Mexicans get through anyway, well, you know what to do.
Limbaugh and Trump want us to hate Mexican immigrants. Their hateful words inspire people, presumably people who already possess some predilection toward violence, to turn that hate into action. The El Paso terrorist was not the first person to do so.
Progressives have a different message. First, all human beings are exactly that, human beings, worthy of equal respect and dignity. And no one, especially not children, should be put in cages. Just as importantly, all Americans are not only equal before the law; we must recognize them as equal members of the American community. Latino and Mexican Americans are just as American as the rest of us. We are one people. We shouldn’t have to say this in America, but thanks to hatemongers like Limbaugh and Trump, it has become our duty as progressives and Americans to make sure that our Latino and Mexican brothers and sisters know how those of us who are not Latino or Mexican feel about them.
I’ll close with words from a president who is, as I’ve written elsewhere, the exact moral opposite of Donald Trump. Here is Barack Obama on Nov. 24, 2014, placing immigrants from Mexico squarely within the American family:
My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.