The Trump administration took steps to block asylum seekers from entering the U.S.-Mexico border amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This nativist policy course has been pushed by anti-immigrant pundits and hate groups from the time the crisis started to unfold.
The White House first began to weigh tightening controls on the U.S.-Mexico border last month, according to a report published by Reuters on Feb. 29. At that time, a group of 11 Republican House lawmakers issued a letter to the president seeking such a move, noting that “any outbreak in Central America or Mexico could cause a rush to our border.”
The Trump administration, which has been criticized for its handling of the COVID-19 (also known as coronavirus) pandemic, moved beyond weighing the option of tightening border restrictions to starting the negotiating process for a policy of turning away asylum seekers who arrive at the U.S. border “without any detainment and without any due process,” according to a March 17 report in The New York Times. The Times story noted that confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Mexico stood at 82 at the time the decision was made, which represents only a fraction of the 5,600 cases confirmed in the U.S. at the same time.
The effort to block the asylum-seeking process at the U.S.-Mexico border follows a pattern established early on in Trump’s tenure of cracking down harshly on non-white immigration into the U.S. and is expected to be applauded by anti-immigrant far-right activists, who have repeatedly urged the administration to exploit the crisis along racial and ideological lines. Many white nationalist and neo-Nazi websites, as well as anti-immigration think tanks, have contributed to this call.
VDARE, a white nationalist website created by anti-immigration activist Peter Brimelow, has produced a deluge of propaganda related to the pandemic. A round-up of the site's writings, which was published to their website on March 21, listed some 110 posts on the topic that were circulated as far back as January. Additionally, VDARE produced nearly 50 posts related to the pandemic on their site between March 16 and March 23, dominating the framing of the group’s anti-immigrant propaganda overall.
VDARE published a column from nativist pundit and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan on Feb. 27, for example, encouraging President Trump to use COVID-19 to further his anti-immigrant agenda. The column preceded Reuters’ reporting that the Trump administration was considering such measures by two days.
“Like Trump’s America, all nations, in this crisis, are going to put their own people first. As they should,” Buchanan wrote.
VDARE’s word may carry weight within the Trump White House. Stephen Miller, Trump’s de facto immigration czar, forwarded a link from VDARE to Breitbart News in October 2015 regarding the subject of Temporary Protected Status for refugees while serving as an aide to then-Senator Jeff Sessions, as Hatewatch previously reported. Under Miller’s stewardship on immigration, America has significantly rolled back rights for people seeking emergency refuge on its shores.
Buchanan, whose nativist 1992 presidential campaign was an ideological forerunner to Trump’s foray into politics, observed in his column that the COVID-19 crisis was an opportunity to expose the shallow popularity of the so-called “‘open borders’ ideology,” noting that “the globalists are taking a beating” due to the spread of the virus. He followed it up on March 12 with another post on VDARE, commenting that the COVID-19 pandemic might trigger a “deathblow to the New World Order” of globalization.
“Is not the case now conclusive that we made a historic mistake when we outsourced our economic independence to rely for vital necessities upon nations that have never had America's best interests at heart?” Buchanan wrote. “Which rings truer today? We are all part of mankind, all citizens of the world. Or that it’s time to put America and Americans first!”
As far back as Feb. 1, VDARE encouraged its readers to view the COVID-19 crisis through the lens of race. One piece on the site, titled “Do You Know All Coronavirus Victims Appear To Be Chinese? Thought Not!” analyzed the crisis through speculative, unproven race science, and used the virus as evidence in support of the white nationalist refrain, “race is a biological reality.” The same author followed up that post by writing on Feb. 15, “The disease apparently does indeed discriminate by race.” Even COVID-19’s first American victim, he wrote, was clearly not someone who had “descended from people [who] arrived on our shores in the Mayflower.” (In reality, cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and elsewhere have spanned across lines of race and ethnicity.)
Kevin DeAnna, a white nationalist who contributes to VDARE and other white nationalist publications under the pen name “James Kirkpatrick,” praised Italy’s Matteo Salvini when he called for a shutdown of Italy’s borders. DeAnna prodded Trump to follow Salvini's lead. On March 15, DeAnna encouraged the president to “ban legal immigrants and refugees.” But above all, he continued, Trump shouldn’t let the opportunity fall by the wayside, provided that it “proves that nationalists have been right all along.”
Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigrant hate group that’s the brainchild of the late John Tanton and a favored think tank of Miller, has also written about COVID-19 with a nativist bent. The group published blog posts describing the virus as the “Wuhan Flu” while urging Trump to close borders in response to it. In one post titled “The Wuhan Wakeup on Immigration and Border Security,” published March 13, senior fellow Andrew R. Arthur referenced the threat of “alien terrorists” multiple times, while proposing a legal framework for drastically restricting immigration. Center for Immigration Studies’ fellow Dan Cadman also wrote of the pandemic in a post issued March 16, expressing concerns that undocumented “replacement workers” would be used to replace people who fell ill.
“But why would anyone think that the replacement workers – especially given the strong likelihood of their being in the United States illegally, and quite possibly recent border-crossers from who-knows-where – would be coronavirus-free?” Cadman wrote.
Neo-Nazis, representing the hardest edges of the anti-immigrant far right, have made similar calls for closing the border in response to the crisis, but expressed pessimism that Trump and his cohorts would follow through on it. “Wild Rich,” a neo-Nazi who has in the past praised acts of terrorism in the name of building a country for only white non-Jews, published a post on the subscription content service Patreon on March 17 called “Open Borders Caused the COVID-19 Pandemic,” writing that he has “zero faith that our elites will make any considerable changes to the law or public policy in the aftermath of this event.” The piece was reposted under the name Richard Houck at Counter-Currents and, later, at the American Renaissance site.
“As it stands, there is nothing to prevent a disease that pops up in any corner of the globe from making its way right into your favorite bar, grocery store, your university, your parent’s or grandparent’s nursing home, or your child’s school,” he wrote, while calling to use the crisis to build a “real White nation.”
Andrew Anglin, the editor of neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, expressed similar pessimism, while working characteristic notes of racism and misogyny into his analysis.
“Well, if anything good comes of this, maybe we will reinstate borders in white countries? Haha, no,” Anglin wrote March 18, referring to a report about asylum seekers in The New York Times. “I doubt they will even close them in the first place, let alone keep them closed afterward. If they are closed, it will be a massive celebration when they are reopened, with white women out in the streets cheering the return of the brown flood.”
Advocates of immigrant rights, who have expressed concern about the Trump administration’s potential willingness to exploit the COVID-19 crisis to pursue a nativist agenda, are unlikely to be reassured by this increase in hateful rhetoric from the more extreme elements of Trump’s base.
“It is unbelievable that amid this global crisis, [the White House remains] consumed by this effort, using the pandemic as an excuse to turn back asylum seekers,” Melissa Crow of Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project wrote in a March 18 statement. “Denying asylum seekers their rights will do absolutely nothing to solve this pandemic.”
The flurry of hate group activity related to the subject of border closings comes on the heels of Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual Year in Hate report, which found an 18% increase in anti-immigrant activity and a 5% growth in white nationalist activity, despite a slight decrease in the overall number of hate groups in the U.S. in 2019.
President Trump connected the pandemic to the subject of immigration again on the morning of March 23, writing to his 75 million Twitter followers, “THIS IS WHY WE NEED BORDERS!”