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Conspiratorial Rhetoric of Migrant ‘Invasion’ Reaches High Levels in 2023

Aug. 3, 2023, marked the four-year anniversary of the racially motivated shooting in El Paso, Texas, where 23 people were killed and 22 wounded at a Walmart. The shooter left behind a manifesto blaming a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” as the basis for the attack. The shooter was sentenced to 90 consecutive life sentences on July 7, 2023. But the dangerous “invasion” rhetoric the shooter pushed is still widely used — not only by fringe white nationalist or anti-immigrant hate figures, but also by prominent and powerful elected officials.

A concerningly high rate of Republican members of Congress and other elected officials using the term “invasion” to describe migrants from mostly Central and South America fleeing violence and seeking asylum — a human right recognized under international law — at the U.S. southern border. The idea of an invasion by migrants and asylum seekers feeds into the “great replacement” theory, a racist conspiracy theory that claims white people in Western nations are being displaced and replaced by immigrants and people of color. It conjures dehumanizing images of migrants, many of whom are people of color, as being a marauding, militaristic force charging the southern border. Extreme Republican elected officials also claim this is a concerted effort by the Biden administration and Democrats to import a loyal voting bloc to replace American voters, another widely used anti-immigrant trope and central theme to replacement thinking.

Indeed, the introduction to the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 Mandate for Leadership handbook — which is a set of policy recommendations for a future conservative presidential administration — claims progressives “seek to purge the very concept of the nation-state from the American ethos” through “open border” policies. The claims and proposed federal policy changes echo the rhetoric of anti-immigrant groups who often seek to severely curtail or end all immigration to the United States.

In a chapter of the handbook dedicated to the Department of Homeland Security, for example, Ken Cuccinelli, former acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) during the Trump administration, claims that when undocumented immigrants are not detained, they “disappear into the interior of the United States where many commit crimes.” In line with this rhetoric, he argues for mass roundups of immigrants who could be deemed “a national security or public safety threat,” saying the role of ICE deportation officers should be “the civil arrest, detention, and removal of immigration violators anywhere in the United States, without warrant where appropriate.”


Cuccinelli — who infamously rewrote the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty in 2019 to argue for limiting immigration — also asserts in the Mandate for Leadership that “victimization should not be a basis for an immigration benefit,” and he argues against a visa program for victims of human trafficking.

Notably, the anti-immigrant hate groups Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which have promoted replacement-style conspiracies, contributed to Project 2025. Those similarities are evident in Cuccinelli’s chapter when he argues for the use of “Blackie’s Warrants” by ICE. The term is derived from the case Blackie’s House of Beef v. Castillo (1981) and refers to dragnet-style searches for undocumented immigrants at American businesses. The ACLU describes raids conducted under the auspices of a Blackie’s Warrant: “The raid is conducted by barring the exits, and questioning everybody, or discriminatorily questioning those who ‘look foreign’ or speak with a foreign accent.” In addition to targeting immigrant communities, the warrants are also criticized as a means to suppress union organizing. In 2016, CIS published a blog post arguing for “reinstituting the use of Blackie’s Warrants.”

On Oct. 2, 2023, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, tweeted: “The border must be shut immediately. Our country cannot sustain this invasion.” U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, one of the biggest proponents of this rhetoric, tweeted on May 17, 2023, “Our country is at stake and we need to save it from Biden’s border invasion.” In September 2023, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott claimed there to be an “invasion at our border because of Biden’s policies.” In July 2023, Abbott installed a barrier of buoys fitted with sawlike blades in the Rio Grande River to deter migrants, which received pushback from the Department of Justice and was said to have resulted in two deaths.

Some hard-line Republican governors including Abbott bused and flew migrants to liberal-leaning cities across the U.S. in hopes of driving a wedge between communities. This helped fuel xenophobic protests in cities including Chicago, where arriving migrants have been met with mixed attitudes. In September 2023, the neo-Nazi group Nationalist Socialist NSC-131 held an anti-immigrant protest outside a hotel in Marlborough, Massachusetts, where migrants were being housed. Members of the group carried flares and a banner that read: “INVADERS: GO HOME.”

According to data collected by the immigrant rights group America’s Voice, by late July 2023, 34 members of Congress deployed such rhetoric at least 90 times during Republican-led hearings on immigration-related matters.

On Aug. 1, 2023, 162 social justice, faith-based, gun safety and immigrant rights groups, including the SPLC, sent a letter to congressional leadership calling on them to urge their colleagues to refrain from using dehumanizing invasion rhetoric. This came at the heels of another petition sent by Oversight Democrats to Republican members in March 2023 to denounce the “great replacement” theory, which received no signatures and was written off as an effort to “distract.”

Speaking about the August letter, Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund, told reporters, “When elected officials amplify dangerous rhetoric like the white nationalist invasion and replacement conspiracy theories, they create a climate that fosters political violence.”

Anti-immigrant and white nationalist thought leaders have for decades pushed invasion and replacement rhetoric. One was John Tanton, the late architect of the modern-day anti-immigrant movement.

In 1994, Tanton and Wayne Lutton co-published The Immigration Invasion, a book containing alarmist thinking around immigration and its alleged threat to the dominant culture of the U.S. Tanton networked with multiple white nationalists, including Peter Brimelow, founder of the white nationalist hate site VDARE.

VDARE articles heavily feature “Invasion” rhetoric. In May 2022, VDARE author “Washington Watcher II” wrote: “The Great Replacement is far from a conspiracy theory. […] Leftists would have you believe the change is akin to changing seasons; no one is really responsible for the Camp-of-the-Saints invasion this country is suffering. ‘Migrants’ looking for a better life just showed up. To suggest otherwise is a dangerous conspiracy theory.”

The Camp of the Saints is a racist dystopian novel revived by Tanton that depicts Europe being overrun by immigrants from India. The book is often cited by white nationalist and anti-immigrant figures as a harbinger of what is to come if migrants continue to arrive at the border.

U.S. elected officials are not alone in fearmongering about migrants and immigration. Europe is facing a rise in far-right, xenophobic ideologies and political parties, especially in parts of France, Italy and Germany. In Ireland, anti-immigrant protests driven by the far right erupted in wake of an alleged knife attack outside a school. The Atlanta-based Atlas Active Club, which is part of a larger network of white nationalist fight clubs, wrote on social media, “Let Ireland inspire you! Out of chaos we rise! Train, prepare, form gangs.”

Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has spent his political career bashing Islam, tempered some of his rhetoric and saw his party make gains in 2023. Hard-right, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim figures laud Wilders and frame him as a hero to their movement. FrontPage Magazine, a publication run by the anti-Muslim hate group David Horowitz Freedom Center, published various articles surprisingly about the “impressive victory” of Wilders’ Freedom Party and how it is a step forward for those concerned about “the disastrous current consequences and long-term existential menace of mass Islamic immigration.”

Clarissa Martinez de Castro, vice president of UnidosUS, the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, reflected on the anniversary of the events four years ago and the rhetoric coming from members of Congress. “I am dumbfounded that we have to issue a call to our elected officials to unequivocally denounce white supremacist rhetoric, and ask members to refrain from using it,” Martinez de Castro told reporters on Aug. 2, 2023. “Our elected officials are entrusted with safeguarding the nation and its people. While we may have policy disagreements on how exactly to do that, there should be no uncertainty about condemning rhetoric that unleashes violence against members of our American community.”

Illustration at top by Chloe Cushman