Right-wing media figures use coronavirus to call for closure of the Mexican border

In podcasts, on Twitter, and on Fox News, right-wing media are calling for “stronger” security at the U.S.-Mexico border amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 that began in Wuhan, China.

In an interview with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon on his War Room: Pandemic podcast on February 26, Brian Kolfage — a fake news peddler and Air Force veteran — claimed that Border Patrol agents have been sending him “pictures of Chinese nationals and just individuals from Asia in general who are coming across” the U.S.-Mexico border. (Kolfage “crowdfunded more than $25 million on GoFundMe” to build President Donald Trump’s border wall, but his organization is currently under criminal investigation.)

Kolfage also referenced a story Fox News had promoted a day before about three Chinese nationals with flu-like symptoms who were reportedly caught at the southern U.S. border trying to enter the country without documentation. Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol council who spoke about the story on Trish Regan Primetime, said none of those three Chinese people had COVID-19 but called it a “wake-up call.”

In an interview with Fox & Friends Weekend on February 29, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach took the argument for border closure further by claiming that “just last year there was an 85% increase -- an 85% jump -- in the number of Chinese nationals sneaking in the country illegally over the southern border.” 

“It's estimated upwards of 12,000 a year may be coming in illegally,” Kobach added. 

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Citation From the February 29, 2020, episode of Fox News' Fox & Friends Weekend

The exploitation of coronavirus fears to call for the closure of the U.S.-Mexico border has gained traction outside of Fox world as well, with Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk pushing the story on Twitter and Breitbart.com publishing at least two articles about a potential outbreak in Mexico that could be brought into the U.S. across the border.

Screenshots of two Breitbart.com articles about coronavirus. The screenshot on the left reads: "Border Patrol Prepared for Migrants Arriving with Coronavirus, Says Incoming Deputy Chief" and features a photo of a Border Patrol agent searching two men against a car. The screenshot on the right features the headline: "Concerns Grow in Mexico over Worldwide Spread of Coronavirus" and shows two Border Patrol agents standing near a body of water.

Screenshots from Breitbart.com

During a February 29 press conference, Trump confirmed that he was considering closing the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“We are thinking about the southern border, ” Trump said when a reporter at the White House press conference asked him about a potential border closure. “We are looking at that very strongly.“

As CNBC noted, there have been 66 confirmed cases in the United States, while there have only been three in Mexico. Additionally, the coronavirus-related deaths in the United States have come in Washington state so far, which is much closer to the Canadian border than the Mexican one.

Trump walked back his statement about the Mexican border when pushed by reporters about his reasoning.

“We’re thinking about all borders, we have to think about that border,” the president said. “This is not a border that seems to be much of a problem right now, we hope we will not have to do that.”

The United States has a long and checkered history of people spreading nativist fears during widespread illnesses, including recent outbreaks such as Ebola, SARS, and swine flu, and racist hysteria surrounding recent pandemics has been stoked by right-wing media figures.

During the swine flu outbreak in 2009, for instance, conservative pundits like Michael Savage and Glenn Beck blamed the illness on Mexican immigrants. Many news outlets have also pointed out the similarities between the racist fearmongering that took place during the SARS scare of 2003, which originated in mainland China, and the xenophobia being stoked about COVID-19.