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Talk of 'invasion' moves from the fringe to the mainstream of GOP immigration message

Blake Masters, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, speaks to supporters during a campaign event in Tucson.
Brandon Bell
Getty Images
Blake Masters, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, speaks to supporters during a campaign event in Tucson.

In Republican primary races this year, few issues have come up more in TV ads than immigration. And one word in particular stands out: invasion.

A few years ago, that word was confined to the fringes of the immigration debate. Most candidates would avoid it.

In this election cycle, it's moved squarely into the mainstream.

"We're gonna end this invasion," Blake Masters, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, says in a campaign ad.

The word has also appeared in ads for Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia, Sen. Rick Scott in Florida, and Kari Lake, who's locked in a close race in the Republican primary for governor in Arizona.

"Before these ideas might have been seen as outliers. But now, it is really troubling," said Vanessa Cárdenas, the deputy director of America's Voice, an immigrant advocacy group that's been tracking political ads. It's found dozens of ads that use the word invasion by Republicans campaigning all over the country.

"This type of rhetoric, it's meant to agitate people for political reasons," Cárdenas said, "because it makes people feel anger and hate."

Ties to a conspiracy theory

It's been three years since a white gunman opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 23 people, most of them Latino. The suspect was motivated by what he called a "Hispanic invasion" of people coming to the U.S. illegally.

Since then, the number of migrant apprehensions at the southern U.S. border has climbed to new records — while the political rhetoric around immigration has gotten more extreme.

The word invasion has a long history in white nationalist circles. For years, it was used widely by supporters of the "replacement theory" — the false conspiracy theory that says Jews or elites are deliberately replacing white Americans with immigrants and people of color. Until recently, you rarely heard it from Republican officeholders or candidates.

So what changed? For one thing, former President Trump, who used the word invasion a lot.

"Trump kind of exposed the kinds of rhetoric that resonated with the Republicans," said John Thomas, a Republican strategist based in California.

Thomas is working with several candidates for state office in Texas who've used "invasion" in their messaging this election cycle. That's partly because of Trump's example, he says. But for Thomas, the bigger issue is what's happening at the southern border, where the number of migrant apprehensions is on pace to exceed 2 million this year — breaking the record set just last year.

"The word invasion presses the hot buttons of Republican voters as they feel that it's a much bigger deal than it was before," Thomas said. "The rhetoric is increasing its intensity to match."

Southern border apprehensions climb

"I've never ever seen what we're seeing today," said Brad Coe, the longtime sheriff of Kinney County, Texas, at a press conference last month. Coe said his deputies are overwhelmed trying to catch unauthorized migrants crossing through ranches and small towns.

"This is unprecedented in Kinney County," he said. "Our numbers are gonna triple. We cannot sustain this type of invasion."

Immigration hardliners argue that it's fair to use the word invasion even if the migrants crossing the border don't look like a traditional military force, in part because their sheer numbers have distracted law enforcement officers from responding to other threats.

But immigrant advocates say the invasion narrative is fundamentally misleading.

Almost half of all migrants apprehended at the southern border are quickly expelled back to Mexico. Nearly all are unarmed. Many are fleeing poverty and violence and autocratic governments all over the hemisphere, and turning themselves in to the Border Patrol in hopes of getting asylum or other protections in the U.S.

A 'target' on the backs of immigrants

"They're mothers and children and fathers, people who are basically doing what any one of us would do if we were in their shoes," said Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso in Congress.

What worries Escobar is that this invasion rhetoric will inspire another tragedy like the mass shooting in the El Paso Walmart — or the shooting earlier this year in Buffalo, where the man suspected of killing 10 Black people was also motivated by the replacement theory.

"I am very, very concerned for communities like mine that we will see more acts of violence committed against immigrants, against Latinos, because of this rhetoric," Escobar said on a call with reporters last month.

Advocates say this increasingly extreme language is putting a target on the backs of immigrants — one that will still be there when the midterm elections have come and gone.

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Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.