Politicians’ talk of a border ‘invasion’ is speech that experts say has gotten people killed

Border Patrol officers detain two men in El Paso in late March. Photo by Marty Schladen | Ohio Capital Journal

EL PASO, TEXAS — In this border city, the word “invasion” is particularly fraught.

Former President Donald Trump has long used it to characterize the flow of migrants to the southwestern border, recent surges of which have severely taxed the resources of the United States and Mexico. Recently, Trump also has called undocumented immigrants “not human” and “animals” who are “poisoning the blood” of the United States.

Increasingly, some of Trump’s fellow Republicans are mimicking the rhetoric. In Ohio’s recent GOP Senate primary, all three candidates — state Sen. Matt Dolan, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, and eventual nominee Bernie Moreno — peppered their messages with the notion of a border “invasion.”

And in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and Republicans in the legislature last year produced a law giving state law enforcement the right to detain people it suspects of being in the U.S. without documents — and to expel them if they are. Power to enforce immigration law rests with the federal government, but Abbott and his allies claim they have a constitutional right to expel migrants because Texas is being “invaded.”

Such claims might be legally dubious, but they serve a political purpose, some experts said. If the overheated rhetoric results in violence, so much the better as far as some of the people using it are concerned, the thinking goes.

Not only do alarmist claims of an “invasion” amp up the fear and the ardor of supporters, the threats posed by the most extreme among them drive their targets and non-supporters into the shadows, said Lindsay Schubiner, who studies violent speech and movements at the Western States Center, an anti-extremism group.

“There’s a reason why violence is a part of bigoted movements, and part of it is that they create a chilling effect on communities,” Schubiner said recently. “They create a ton of fear and push people out of the life of their community and they have an effect on the people who are directly targeted and on their families and on entire communities. The impacts are so enormous.”

Hitting home

Those impacts have certainly been felt here in El Paso.

In a May 2019 rally, Trump asked a Florida audience what should be done about undocumented migrants crossing the border. When a member of the audience yelled “shoot them,” Trump laughed and treated it as a joke.

Three months later, Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old white man from a wealthy Dallas suburb, drove 650 miles to a Walmart just north of that border. He cased the cavernous store and reassured himself that there were plenty of Hispanic-looking people among the customers in the store, ABC News reported just after the shooting occurred.

Then Crusius went back to his car, retrieved an AK-47 and opened fire in the parking lot and then inside the store, killing 23 and injuring 22 others.

A late-March Saturday in the Walmart where 23 people, most of whom were Hispanic, were killed on Aug. 3, 2019. Photo by Marty Schladen | Ohio Capital Journal

The Walmart seemed bustling on a recent Saturday, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the sudden terror in 2019 as routine shopping flipped into chaotic violence.

One witness, far along in her pregnancy, told the news organization El Paso Matters how she hid in the bank inside the store where she worked, trying to protect her child. She described the lingering gunsmoke after the shooting stopped and how, as police escorted her from the building, they told her to try not to look at the bodies sprawled in bloody pools on the floor.

It’s hardly surprising that some who were there and victims’ loved ones have told therapists that nearly five years later they’re still afraid to get out much in the community.

In a manifesto posted just before the massacre, Crusius claimed that he’d been deeply alarmed about Hispanic immigration since before Trump came on the scene.

Crusius was only 16 when the former president descended an escalator at Trump Tower and announced his candidacy, saying that Mexico was sending “rapists” and “drug dealers.” And before that fatal trip to the border, Crusius had posted a number of tweets praising Trump’s border policies. Many contained the hashtag #BuildtheWall.

The rhetoric of invasion featured prominently in Crusius’ manifesto.

“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” it said. “They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”

Words and consequences

In the wake of the shooting, lawyers for Crusius said it was due to their client’s mental illness. But that’s too pat — and it lets too many others off the hook, said Beto O’Rourke, who has represented El Paso in Congress and on city council.

“It wasn’t just a crazy guy with a gun who murdered a bunch of innocent people,” O’Rourke said in a recent interview. “It was someone who was listening to the president (Trump) of the United States who described immigrants as an invasion, as animals, as an infestation, as a threat to the people of this country; who listened to (Texas Gov. Abbott), who said, Texans, you have to defend yourselves, you have to take matters into your own hands.”

O’Rourke invoked the concept of “stochastic terrorism.” It posits that some public figures demonize a group in a way that doesn’t directly command followers to do violence, but motivates them to attack the target of the rhetoric just the same.

“The idea is a stochastic terrorist — a Donald Trump, a Greg Abbott — they don’t tell someone ‘Go kill these people,’” O’Rourke said. “But they say these people are animals, they are invading. It’s like that scene out of medieval English history — ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’ The king didn’t order his soldiers to kill the bishop, but essentially he gave them permission to do that.”

In January, Abbott suggested he’d have undocumented migrants shot if he didn’t think the federal government would prosecute him for it. His office didn’t respond to questions for this story.

For his part, Trump has denied that his statements have led to violence. But a 2020 ABC News investigation found 54 criminal cases in which his name was invoked in the commission of violent acts.

Similarly, “great replacement theory” rhetoric promoted by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson has been linked to three other mass shootings since 2018 — including a racist 2022 massacre at a Buffalo supermarket that killed 10. According to many versions of that conspiracy theory, shadowy Jewish people are behind an effort to replace the dominant white majority with a Black and Brown horde.

Neo Nazi marchers were referring to the conspiracy in 2017 as they marched in Charlottesville, Va., chanting “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.” A Hitler admirer — James Alex Fields of Northwest Ohio — plowed his car into a group of counterdemonstraters, killing one. Trump responded by saying there were “very fine people on both sides” of the violent demonstration.

Military emergency?

People who study speech that gets people hurt say the claims it makes are commonly false. Critics say claims of an “invasion” at the southern border are false as well.

As O’Rourke was talking in late March, he was sitting on his porch, which overlooks the border from a perennially peaceful neighborhood just across it. El Paso has long been one of the safest large cities in the United States.

A group of migrants east of town had rushed past Texas National Guard troops just east of town a few days earlier. But many appeared to be trying to get around Guard personnel Abbott had sent to the border so they could seek asylum from the Border Patrol.

Many experts say spiking numbers of migrants and related incidents don’t meet the constitutional definition of “invasion” on which Abbott is hanging his hat as he claims the power to interpose state law enforcement and have it decide who is and is not in Texas legally. To do that, Abbott would have to show that Texas is being invaded militarily, Frank O. Bowman wrote in Just Security, an online forum for experts in law, security, and foreign policy.

The Paso del Norte Bridge in El Paso. The inscription on the Mexican mountain in the background urges people to read the Bible. Photo by Marty Schladen | Ohio Capital Journal

In temporarily blocking Texas Senate Bill 4 — the legislation that became law giving Texas the power to enforce immigration law — U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra agreed.

“Contemporary definitions of ‘invasion’ and ‘actually invaded’ as well as common usage of the term in the late Eighteenth Century predominantly referred to an ‘invasion’ as a hostile and organized military force, too powerful to be dealt with by ordinary judicial proceedings,” Ezra wrote in his Feb. 29 ruling. “This Court could not locate a single contemporaneous use of the term to refer to surges in unauthorized foreign immigration. The text and structure of the State War Clause imply that ‘invasion’ was to be used sparingly for temporary, exigent, and dangerous circumstances. Put simply, the overwhelming textual and historical evidence does not support Texas’s understanding of the State War Clause.”

State Sen. Cesar Blanco is a Democrat whose district includes El Paso and several rural border counties. He said that while some constituents are having serious problems with the surge in migration, it’s not an invasion, and talking about it like it is only makes solutions more elusive.

“As someone who has served in the military, when you look at what ‘invasion’ means, it’s one country invading another with force,” Blanco said. “These are just people. We’ve heard ‘invasion’ so much from national leaders. We’ve seen it on Twitter. We hear it on the news. It’s part of many people’s perception of what’s happening.”

Feeding fear

The Dangerous Speech Project studies what kinds of speech spur violence between groups and it seeks ways to combat them. The group argues that scary speech — such as falsely claiming a border invasion — can be even more dangerous than spewing hatred.

“Frightening messages may also spread even more widely and quickly than purely hateful ones, since many people share them without malevolent intentions, or even the desire to incite violence,” the group says on its website. “They feel genuine fear.”

And that, said Schubiner of the Western States Center, serves the ends of the most extreme purveyors of dangerous speech.

“That’s why we call it anti-democracy,” she said. “The goal of the white-nationalist movement is to create an all-white nation in the United States. That requires pushing people out. That requires violence.”

Schubiner added that if politicians continue to use fear-inducing speech about migrants and the southern border, it won’t be a matter of if another extremist will murder innocents, but when.

“We have seen again and again the spread of conspiracy theories like the great replacement theory, anti-immigrant rhetoric, invasion rhetoric and other forms of overt bigotry that dehumanize people,” she said. “It sometimes explicitly calls for violence, or on the other hand normalizes it. You shouldn’t be surprised when that leads to violence. It’s happened before and, sadly, it’s likely to happen again.”

This article was originally published by Ohio Capital Journal, a sister publication of the Arizona Mirror and a member of the States Newsroom network of local news organizations.

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