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Stoking fears of immigrants has been part of the Republican platform for decades. But something is different this time

Texas Governor Greg Abbott spoke alongside former president Donald Trump during a tour last month of an unfinished section of the border wall.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott spoke alongside former president Donald Trump during a tour last month of an unfinished section of the border wall.Brandon Bell/Getty

Donald Trump and the crude, hostile rallying cries against immigrants that powered his rise have vacated the White House — but his message hasn’t gone out of style.

As they gear up for key races in 2022 and 2024, many Republicans have adopted the ex-president’s rhetoric in his absence, stoking racial and ethnic anxieties over immigration and blaming President Biden for what they paint as dystopian and dangerous conditions at the US-Mexico border that they say are threatening the interior.

“Homes are being invaded,” Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott said at a May press conference unveiling plans to finish Trump’s border wall in the Rio Grande Valley. “Neighborhoods are dangerous, and people are being threatened on a daily basis with guns.”

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The rhetoric has reached cities as small as Brackettville, Texas, where local officials signed a state of disaster letter declaring their rural border county “under siege” as immigrants “invade.” Republican governors in states nowhere near Mexico, including South Dakota and Ohio, are heeding the calls from Abbott and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to send National Guard troops and other law enforcement agents to patrol the nation’s southwestern edge.

The Biden “administration has turned every town into a border town, and every state into a border state,” Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn told reporters last week, referencing migrant children flown into shelters in her state. “Look at what we would be opening our country, our communities, our states, to, if this is allowed to continue.”

Tough talk on border security and immigration has long been a staple of Republican politics, particularly during primaries, when politicians often vow to crack down on illegal immigration. But Trump took the rhetoric to a new level in both volume and intensity as president, frequently complaining of an “invasion” of nameless immigrants and depicting border crossers as criminals and “killers” in his rally speeches.

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That overwrought “invasion” language, which Republican officials are now echoing to criticize Biden’s border policies, plays into far right and, explicitly, white supremacist tropes that fuel anxiety among white voters about the dilution of their political power, historians and political analysts said, and that could have deadly consequences. Two recent white supremacist shooting suspects, Robert Bowers in Pittsburgh and Patrick Crusius in El Paso, Texas, cited “invaders” and a “Hispanic invasion” in the lead-up to their crimes.

Republicans say they have legitimate reasons to raise fears about the situation at the border, pointing to apprehensions that reached a 20-year high in June and rising summer temperatures that haven’t had their usual effect of deterring crossings.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has been blasting out a weekday newsletter dubbed the “Biden Border Crisis,” with what it lists as Biden’s policy failures, as congressional Republicans head down to the Rio Grande Valley for boat tours of the border.

“Democrats created a border crisis, and it keeps getting worse,” NRCC spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair said. “Their inability and unwillingness to stem the flow of drugs and migrants illegally crossing the US-Mexico border will cost them their House majority.”

A group of migrants from Honduras and Nicaragua waited along a road in La Joya, Texas, after turning themselves in upon crossing the border in May.
A group of migrants from Honduras and Nicaragua waited along a road in La Joya, Texas, after turning themselves in upon crossing the border in May.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Democrats defend Biden’s approach to the border, pointing out that the crossings started to hit new peaks under Trump, as well, even as Trump took hardline and inhumane measures to deter migrants.

But several polls suggest the GOP lines of attack may be having an effect. A Harvard CAPS-Harris poll released in June found approval for Biden’s handling of immigration had dropped since February, from 56 percent to 52 percent, the lowest rating out of any of the eight issues polled. Another Washington Post-ABC News poll from July found 51 percent of Americans disapproved, making immigration Biden’s lowest ranking issue in that poll, as well.

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The use of more inflammatory language around immigration, including painting migrants as criminals, is not new to the Republican Party.

Anti-immigrant sentiment has approached the party’s mainstream at various times since Congress passed legislation in 1965 tackling immigration reform and civil rights — and most recently in California, Arizona, and Texas, where the Latino population has grown.

Pat Buchanan, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996, wrote books that warned about “immigrant invasions” eroding Western society, and years before Trump, Iowa Representative Steve King called for a border wall and compared immigrants to dogs.

But Buchanan was shunned from his party and King ousted from his committees for his rhetoric as recently as 2018. Trump, who slammed Buchanan as a “Hitler lover” in 1999 before cribbing his language on immigration years later, has been embraced.

After Trump rode that message into the White House, his attorney general Jeff Sessions and Trump aide Stephen Miller played to white grievances as they reshaped the nation’s approach to immigration and the US-Mexico border, drastically curbing the path to asylum, limiting legal forms of migration, and making the vilification of immigrants they deemed unwanted a consistent and open theme of the Trump presidency.

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“We tend to think of Trump as undisciplined and scattered and unorganized, but when it came to his immigration during the four years of his presidency, he had a laser focus,” said Geraldo Cadava, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and author of “The Hispanic Republican.”

The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant language, coupled with its harsh policy approach, resonated with the mix of white power activists, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists who first came together in the aftermath of the Vietnam War to seek to create a separate white ethnostate, experts said. Now, some of the movement’s ideas permeate in the mainstream immigration debate, most notably echoes of the “Great Replacement” trope — a racist conspiracy theory with roots in early 20th century French nationalism. It asserts that elites are using Black and brown immigrants from Africa and the Middle East to replace native white Europeans around the world.

“By moving from the fringe to the mainstream, [the anti-immigrant rhetoric] provides cover to a much more radical and anti-Democratic strain in white power politics,” said Kathleen Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago, who has studied the movement for 15 years.

In April, Tucker Carlson, the popular Fox News pundit, took a version of those views to prime time when he said Democrats planned to maintain power by changing the country’s population, and that they wanted to “replace” the current electorate with “more obedient voters from the Third World.”

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Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin dipped into similar language on Fox Business just weeks later. The Biden administration “wants complete open borders,” Johnson said. “And you have to ask yourself why? Is it really they want to remake the demographics of America to ensure their — that they stay in power forever? Is that what’s happening here?”

To be sure, immigration is a thorny issue that has stumped both Republican and Democratic administrations over the past three decades — and many Republican voters and politicians view it with nuance, saying they want tighter restrictions against illegal immigration but better treatment of people caught in the system.

Still, dehumanizing and more extreme language has surged as congressional and state-level Republicans have sought to keep Trump’s border policies, claiming that migrants crossing the US-Mexico border are bringing drugs, crime, and disease; that federal officials are clandestinely moving immigrants into quiet and presumably predominantly white suburbs and neighborhoods nationwide; and that the newcomers are putting a strain on social services.

The language stirs fears of demographic change at a time when many Republicans are still rallying around an ex-president who declined to condemn white supremacist groups. “We are just in this moment now where everyone is trying to figure out how far to the right, how far into white nationalism can the GOP go and still maintain a sense of legitimacy,” said Laura Gómez, a law professor at the University of California who has written on race, Latino voters, and immigration in the United States.

Perhaps nowhere has the language been more pervasive than in Texas, where white nativist conspiracy theories that Mexicans plan to “reconquer” the Southwest have percolated since at least the 19th century, and where as recently as August 2019, a self-proclaimed white supremacist opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, killing 23 people.

In a racist online screed he wrote before the crime, the suspect parroted the Great Replacement theory, as well as Trump and Texas Republican rhetoric, as he warned against the Hispanic “invasion” of the state.

That hasn’t stop Abbott from echoing Trump as he has raised alarm over the “carnage” fueled by “people who are coming across the border.” At a press conference that included Trump last month by the border wall, Abbott denounced a rise in “criminal migrants,” and pledged to complete the steel-rod fence to stop communities from being “overrun.”

“We need to emphasize exactly why we are doing this,” Abbott said. “We are doing this because our fellow Texans and our fellow Americans, they are being threatened every single day.”

Standing nearby, Trump sternly looked on.


Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa.