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Immigration “Invasion” Rhetoric Has a Long, Ugly History

Aug 25, 2022

A woman in denim capris and black and white sneakers visits a memorial at the site of the shooting at Walmart in El Paso Texas. Out of focus beyond the woman are flowers, signs, and framed photos.

On August 27, 1873, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an advertisement for a forthcoming book. The notice in the paper read, “THE CHINESE INVASION! They are Coming, 900,000 Strong.” The ad finished by asking, “What are you going to do about it? Nations of the earth take warning.”

The book of the same name claimed there had been a “twenty-three years’ invasion of the Chinese in California and the establishment of a heathen Chinese despotism in San Francisco” that would “one day overthrow the present Republic of the United States.”

As history would show, Chinese immigrants did not go on to overthrow the U.S. government. However, the repeated claims of an “invasion” by Chinese immigrants garnered attention nationwide, leading Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major law banning an entire group of people from entering the U.S. based on their nationality.

However, even though Chinese immigration was outlawed by the government, the “invasion” metaphor lived on, applied to immigrants from other countries. People arriving from Japan, Korea, and India were portrayed as an invasion, followed by southern and eastern Europeans, and eventually immigrants from Mexico as well.

The “invasion” rhetoric has been a persistent and insidious thread in American political discourse for more than 100 years, and has come startlingly to the forefront in the past two years as more Republican members of the U.S. Congress have begun integrating it into their campaigns.

A recent report from America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy organization, found 546 pieces of political messaging from Republicans that employ versions of ‘white replacement’ and ‘migrant invasion’ talking points in the 2022 election cycle.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a recent NPR poll found that a majority of Americans (incorrectly) believe that asylum-seekers presenting themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border constitute a military invasion.

Merriam-Webster defines an invasion as “an act of invading, especially: incursion of an army for conquest or plunder.” As David J. Bier at the Cato Institute pointed out, “[a]n “invasion” isn’t just an overstatement. It’s a completely unserious attempt to demand extraordinary, military‐ style measures to stop completely mundane actions… But the goal of this nativist language warfare is nothing less than the removal of immigrant rights.”

“Invasion” rhetoric is inextricably linked to the “great replacement theory,” a racist, anti-immigrant conspiracy theory that has motivated multiple mass killers and been invoked by members of the far right to justify hardening immigration restrictions and increasingly militarized borders.

This baseless conspiracy theory claims there is a coordinated plot — to replace white, “traditional” Americans with immigrants and people of color. In the U.S., the more mainstream version of the theory maintains that Democrats are encouraging illegal immigration from Latin America to replace white voters, despite there being no evidence of this.

There is a wealth of research pointing out that use of inflammatory language like “invasion” to describe an increase in migration to the U.S. from other countries is not only inaccurate and inflammatory, but could lead to a further rise in extremist violence.

In October 2018, a white gunman attacked worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing 11 people. The shooter espoused replacement theory ideas on social media, including blaming a Jewish immigration organization for bringing “invaders in [to the U.S.] that kill our people.”

In March 2019, another white shooter killed 51 worshipers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand after publishing an anti-immigrant and anti-immigration manifesto titled “The Great Replacement.” Another gunman inspired by the Christchurch shooter opened fire at a synagogue in Poway, California the following month.

From Charlottesville to El Paso to Buffalo, the tragic and murderous consequences of replacement theory and its mainstreaming by some members of the Republican party has become apparent in increasingly frequent mass-casualty events across the country. And in the wake of some of these events, such as the in the immediate aftermath of the murder of 19 school children in Uvalde, Texas, far-right commentators and even some Republican lawmakers began inaccurately claiming that the shooter was an undocumented immigrant, despite the Texas governor’s original statement that the shooter was a U.S. citizen. Some of these organizations went on, in nearly the same breath, to call for increased security against the “invasion” of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

A true invasion — an act of military force perpetrated against one sovereign nation by another — is met with violence, and the purpose and effect of using this inflammatory language to talk about irregular migration is to justify further violence. For this reason, it is unfortunately unsurprising that various nativists who parrot ideas like the great replacement theory have gone on to commit terrorist attacks.

The impact of this inflammatory and inaccurate rhetoric cannot be understated, and the tragic results in the forms of mass-murders have been the subject of regular and now seemingly increasing headlines. Lawmakers, journalists, and policymakers should cease employing the narrative of the far-right: immigration in any form is not an invasion. Calling it so is not only wrong, but frighteningly irresponsible.

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