President Trump has significantly ramped up his use of the word “invasion” to describe the flow of immigrants to the southern border in recent months, frequently using a divisive call that was apparently echoed by the mass shooter in El Paso, Texas, shortly before this weekend’s killing spree.
The shooter is believed to be behind an online posting that described a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” as the reason behind his attack, which left 22 dead and many more wounded. His choice of language parroted Trump’s recent speeches and tweets.
“With another President, millions would be pouring in. I am stopping an invasion as the Wall gets built,” Trump wrote on Twitter in March.
In June, Trump told the conservative television host Laura Ingraham that people and drugs coming from Mexico were “really an invasion without the guns.”
Since October 2018, Trump has used variations of “invasion” at least 33 times in speeches, tweets, and interviews, according to a Boston Globe analysis of two databases that track the president’s public statements.
Like Trump’s taunt that four congresswomen should “go back” to their countries of origin, scholars say the president’s “invasion” rhetoric is not a new invention, but instead a repeat of language used in some of the ugliest moments in American history. The phrase and the racist ideology behind it have been popular with nativists and politicians alike over the years; it’s a code with a simple key.
“Invasion implies two things: first, that they don’t belong,” said Mae Ngai, a historian at Columbia University and the author of “Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America.” “Second, invasion signals that it’s a crisis of national security, as if there were an army.”
Ngai traces the fear of a “foreign invasion” of immigrants to the late 19th century, when white panic about Chinese Americans was pervasive. Such panic was not confined to the fringes of society; it reached the highest court in the land. In 1889, the Supreme Court offered white citizens and politicians a legal justification for exclusionary laws by saying that immigration was a matter of national security, requiring military-level vigilance.
“To preserve its independence, and give security against foreign aggression and encroachment, is the highest duty of every nation,” the court wrote. “It matters not in what form such aggression and encroachment come, whether from the foreign nation acting in its national character, or from vast hordes of its people crowding in upon us.”
In other words, ordinary people entering the United States could be similar to enemy soldiers.
“That ruling was passed to justify the racist exclusion of Chinese, but actually is the basis of all our immigration law,” Ngai said.
In the first two years of his presidency, Trump’s use of “invasion” to describe immigration was relatively rare, but he began saying it more and more frequently as the 2018 midterm elections neared. He has called immigration an invasion as recently as June, according to the two databases, trumptwitterarchive.com, which tracks Trump’s tweets, and Factba.se, which catalogues nearly every statement, speech, interview, and tweet from the president.
“The Wall is under construction and moving along quickly, despite all of the Radical Liberal Democrat lawsuits. What are they thinking as our Country is invaded by so many people (illegals) and things (Drugs) that we do not want,” Trump tweeted on June 2.
In remarks from the White House on Monday, Trump condemned “racist hate” and said the ideologies of “racism, bigotry, and white supremacy” must be defeated. But critics say he has contradicted those sentiments often with public statements that cast immigrants as dangerous invaders.
“The idea of invasion, of somebody coming in and taking what is ours, it presupposes this idea of a centralized American identity that’s under siege,” said Jennifer Wingard, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Houston. “Typically that centralized identity is kind of Anglo, European; it’s white.”
Wingard said that while she believes it’s the first time a sitting president has used such rhetoric on a national stage, similar language and policies have appeared in legislation at the state and local levels across the country.
In 1994, California’s Proposition 187, for example, sought to block undocumented immigrants from accessing social services, public education, and health care. “Proposition 187 will be the first giant stride in ultimately ending the ILLEGAL ALIEN invasion,” supporters wrote in a public argument in favor of the proposition, which voters approved. A federal judge stopped it from taking effect, however.
More recently, Arizona’s 2010 “Show me your papers” law made it a crime for undocumented immigrants to work and required state law enforcement officials to determine the legal status of people they stopped or arrested. The law’s sponsor, Republican state Senator Russell Pearce, argued it would protect people from “the invasion of illegal aliens we face today.” The Supreme Court struck down most of its provisions.
The long-abiding popularity of the invasion rhetoric stems perhaps from the layered fears that it stirs up among white people.
There are three primary types of invasion fear, according to René Flores, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago; Trump has deployed all three.
The first is the fear of an economic invasion, stoked by the idea that there are limited resources and undocumented immigrants will unfairly use them up.
The second is the fear of a criminal invasion, along the lines of Trump’s false claim before the 2016 presidential election that Mexicans crossing the border were largely drug dealers and criminals.
The third, and perhaps the most psychically powerful, is the fear of a cultural invasion, that what constitutes the “real” America will suddenly disappear.
“He’s nationalizing this campaign,” Flores said. “Even in places that have very few Latinos, very few immigrants, this narrative now is widespread.”
Zoe Greenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano @globe.com.