Immigration 'invasion' now a common theme for Republican candidates With midterm elections looming, many Republican candidates have embraced increasingly extreme language about immigration. Immigrant advocates worry that such rhetoric stokes fear and hate.

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

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Today marks three years since a white gunman killed 23 people, most of them Latinos, at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Police said the suspect was motivated by what he called a, quote, "Hispanic invasion of immigrants." Since then, migrant apprehensions on the border have climbed to record highs. And political rhetoric around immigration has not abated. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: 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.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: An invasion on the southern border.

KARI LAKE: Arizona is under attack.

BLAKE MASTERS: It's time to militarize this border. We're going to end this invasion.

ROSE: Those are ads for Republican Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia, and two candidates from Arizona - Kari Lake, who is running for governor, and Senate hopeful Blake Masters. A few years ago, the word invasion was confined to the fringes of the immigration debate. Most candidates would avoid it until now. In this election cycle, it's moved squarely into the mainstream.

VANESSA CARDENAS: Before, these ideas might have been seen as outliers. But now, you know, it is really troubling.

ROSE: Vanessa Cardenas is the deputy director of America's Voice, an immigrant advocacy group in Washington that's been tracking political ads. It's found dozens of ads that use the word invasion by Republicans campaigning all over the country.

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

ROSE: The word invasion has a long history in white nationalist circles. For years, it was used widely by supporters of the so-called replacement theory, the false conspiracy theory that Jews or other elites are deliberately replacing white Americans with immigrants and people of color. And you rarely heard it from Republican officeholders or candidates. So what changed? For one thing, former President Trump. He used the word a lot. John Thomas is a Republican strategist.

JOHN THOMAS: Trump kind of exposed the kinds of rhetoric that resonated with Republicans.

ROSE: Thomas is working this cycle with several candidates for state office in Texas who've used the word invasion in their messaging. He says that's partly because of Trump's example. But the bigger issue for Thomas is what's happening at the southern border, where the number of migrant apprehensions is higher than it's ever been.

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


BRAD COE: I have never, ever seen what we're seeing today.

ROSE: That's Brad Coe, the sheriff of Kinney County in south Texas. At a press conference last month, Coe said his deputies are overwhelmed, trying to catch record numbers of unauthorized migrants crossing through ranches and small towns.


COE: This is unprecedented in Kinney County. Our numbers are going to triple. We cannot sustain this type of invasion.

ROSE: Republicans argue it's fair to use the word invasion even if the migrants crossing the border don't look like an invading army. But immigrant advocates say that narrative is fundamentally misleading. Almost half of those migrants are quickly expelled back to Mexico. They're nearly all unarmed, fleeing poverty and violence and autocratic governments all over the hemisphere. Most are turning themselves in to the Border Patrol in hopes of getting asylum in the U.S.

VERONICA ESCOBAR: 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.

ROSE: Democratic Congresswoman Veronica Escobar represents El Paso in the House. What worries her is that this invasion rhetoric will inspire another tragedy like the mass shooting three years ago in the El Paso Walmart or this year in Buffalo, N.Y., where the alleged shooter was also motivated by the replacement theory.

ESCOBAR: 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.

ROSE: 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.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.


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