The bogus premise that migrants entering the United States in search of a better life are conducting an “invasion” of the country has moved from the fringes of the right-wing media to its core over the past decade. The idea of an imminent threat to personal safety and national identity posed by columns of faceless brown masses marching on the border is now a fixture of right-wing commentary, from the depths of the online fever swamps to the talk-radio world of Rush Limbaugh to the heights of Fox News. And this incendiary talking point is now the pretext for a looming constitutional crisis.
Texas and the U.S. government are in a standoff over whether the state’s government can defy orders from federal officials by constructing and maintaining razor-wire barriers along the border with Mexico to prevent migrants from crossing into the country. On January 22, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated an appeals court order which had barred the U.S. Border Patrol from taking down the barriers at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, near the Rio Grande — but Texas officials are still preventing federal agents from entering the area.
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrote in a January 24 statement that due to President Joe Biden’s “lawless border policies,” Abbott had “declared an invasion under Article I, § 10, Clause 3 to invoke Texas’s constitutional authority to defend and protect itself,” and that state officials would continue “acting on that authority, as well as state law, to secure the Texas border.”
Legal experts have skewered Abbott’s contention that his state is suffering an “invasion” and that that overrules the federal government’s constitutional supremacy over immigration policy and the maintenance of national borders. They note that mentions of “invasion” in the Constitution refer not to metaphorical examples like migration but to literal armed incursions by hostile foreign powers.
“The claim that a large increase in the number of would-be migrants gaining entry at the southern border constitutes an ‘invasion’ under Article IV is constitutional nonsense,” University of Missouri law professor Frank O. Bowman III wrote for Just Security. “It cannot be sustained by any reasonable reading of the text of the Constitution, the original understanding of the Constitution, or subsequent interpretations of the Constitution by courts or constitutional scholars.”
Indeed, three different federal appeals courts summarily rejected the idea in the 1990s, as Immigration Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick noted.
But constitutional arguments be damned, the right wants to increase the salience of a chaotic border (while preventing both bipartisan legislation that would provide more money for border security and increases in legal immigration) because they think that will help Donald Trump win the presidency. Every Republican governor but one and numerous Republican members of Congress are supporting Abbott’s effort, as are the full constellation of right-wing commentators (some of whom are hyping a potential civil war).
It’s impossible to disaggregate the Republican Party’s full-throated adoption of the bogus “invasion” analogy as a constitutional argument from the right-wing media’s use of that rhetoric.
Language once limited to far-right figures like Pat Buchanan, Lou Dobbs, Steve King, and the Minuteman militia has become commonplace among the movement’s demagogues. Right-wing stars like Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson, who strive to terrify their audiences with the prospect of dangerous immigrants, popularized the “invasion” framing in order to gin up support for the GOP and its ethnonationalist wing and to make space for extraordinary measures at the border. Republican Party leaders, up to and including Trump, have followed in their wake. And along the way, armed white nationalists spouting the same talking point conducted a series of massacres, with targets ranging from an El Paso Walmart to a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Here’s the history, ripped from the Media Matters archives.
2005 — 2012: Pat Buchanan and the “Reconquista”
There is a long American tradition of right-wing bigots warning that immigrants would contaminate and ultimately destroy the country. But President George W. Bush’s ultimately unsuccessful effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation during his second term brought the issue to the fore this century and exacerbated a schism between the right’s pro-business, pro-immigration reform wing and its nationalist, immigration-restrictionist wing.
Right-wing restrictionists used the increasing migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border during that period, an overwhelming majority of which involved Mexican citizens, to claim that the United States was suffering an “invasion” by that country.
“This is an invasion, the greatest invasion in history,” Buchanan wrote in his 2006 book, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America. “We are witnessing how nations perish. We are entered upon the final act of our civilization. The last scene is the deconstruction of the nations. The penultimate scene, now well underway, is the invasion unresisted.”
Buchanan and his allies, like Michelle Malkin, argued that the migrant influx was part of the “Reconquista,” a purported plot by Mexico’s government and Hispanic politicians in the U.S. to reclaim the American Southwest. “Chicano chauvinists and Mexican agents have made clear their intent to take back through demography and culture what their ancestors lost through war,” Buchanan explained. He argued that the “invasion” would cause a “balkanization of America” in which the Southwest “de facto is going to secede from this country.”
The “Reconquista” theory fell out of fashion in subsequent years, as migrants with Mexican citizenship fell from 85% of all border apprehensions to 20%. But even without the involvement of a purportedly hostile foreign nation, “invasion” rhetoric recurred on the right’s fringes whenever the immigration issue returned to the fore — and ultimately spread into its mainstream.
2013 — 2016: Laura Ingraham’s “invasion” talk helps take down Cantor, Breitbart’s lifts up Trump
Immigration reform once more seemed within reach during President Barack Obama’s second term. The U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill in 2013 that would have increased border enforcement, expanded legal immigration, and provided a path to citizenship for unauthorized migrants. With Obama promising to sign the bill, the remaining holdup was the Republican-controlled House — and right-wing immigration restrictionists like Laura Ingraham, then a prominent radio host and Fox contributor, demanding that the GOP legislators oppose reform.
But the first months of 2014 saw a near-doubling of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border over the previous year, which experts attributed to a rise in gang violence in Central America. Obama’s June declaration that the surge constituted an “urgent humanitarian situation” requiring the provision of food, housing, and medical treatment for the children triggered a firestorm on the right — complete with claims that the kids constituted an “invasion.”
“The Obama administration has basically put out the welcome mat at the border: ‘Come on in, we'll feed you, we'll house you, we’ll clothe you, we'll get you medical care,’” Ingraham said in a Fox & Friends appearance. “This is an ongoing invasion into our country, and it is horrifying for our sovereignty and our rule of law.”
Ingraham also blamed Republican Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader and a congressman from Virginia who supported citizenship for young people brought to the U.S. as children, if not necessarily broader immigration reform, for aiding what she described as “an invasion facilitated by our own government.” And she did more than complain about him — she endorsed and campaigned for Cantor’s primary opponent, Dave Brat.
Brat won that June 10 election in a victory widely credited to the anti-immigrant rabble-rousing of demagogues like Ingraham. Cantor’s defeat sent a seismic shock through the GOP, and by the end of the month, House Speaker John Boehner informed Obama that immigration reform would not receive a vote that year. The increasingly powerful right-wing media had exercised its veto over the Republican agenda.
Soon after, immigrant “invasion” rhetoric began gaining traction on right-wing Facebook pages, Media Matters found. Breitbart.com, the far-right website controlled at the time by Trumpist Steve Bannon, sought to capture that fringe-right grassroots energy — and snag market share from Fox — with virulent anti-immigration content. By 2015, the site “became the center of a distinct right-wing media ecosystem,” Harvard researchers reported in a post-mortem on election coverage that cycle.
The right-wing media’s incessant fearmongering over the border eliminated any space within the party for reformers. The ultimate beneficiary was Trump, who launched his presidential campaign claiming that Mexico was sending “rapists” to the U.S. and promised to build a wall and make that country pay for it as his supporters touted his ability to turn back the purported “invasion.”
2017 — 2020: The migrant caravan and the mainstreaming of “the great replacement”
Trump’s ascension to the presidency put his party in control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives and left him ultimately responsible for the border. But as the 2018 midterm elections approached, Trump adopted Fox’s preferred campaign strategy by focusing attention on a caravan of migrants 1,000 miles from the U.S. border with Mexico, an “invasion” he falsely blamed on Democrats.
The Fox-fueled president’s fevered statements attracted crisis-level coverage from national broadcast shows, cable news networks, and newspapers, though the attention ultimately failed to prevent Democrats from gaining control of Congress.
Trump’s caravan push coincided with a major increase in Fox references to migrants as an “invasion” or “invaders,” a trend that continued even after the GOP’s November defeat, Media Matters found. “Prime-time Fox News hosts and guests used the words to refer to migrants 33 times in the 30 days ahead of the election, up from 25 times in all of 2015, 2016 and 2017,” we reported. “Fox has kept up the attacks in the weeks after the Republicans lost the U.S. House: Prime-time hosts and guests used the terms 48 times between Election Day and the end of November.” A follow-up review found more than 70 Fox references to a migrant “invasion” in the first seven months of 2019.
As Democrats took power in Congress, Fox commentators began pushing something even darker alongside their constant invocations of a migrant “invasion.” Influential figures like Ingraham and fellow Fox host Tucker Carlson adopted the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, a white supremacist talking point which posits that Democrats are deliberately importing brown migrants to “replace” white Americans in order to corrupt the country and increase their own power.
The “great replacement” rhetoric moved from internet fever swamps to the prime-time hours of the nation’s most-watched cable news network — and to the manifestos of white nationalist spree killers bent on stopping the “invaders.”
2021 — 2024: Forever war
The right’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has been more incendiary than ever since Biden took office in 2021. Border apprehensions and expulsions have increased to record levels as migrants flee political and economic instability in Central and South America for the booming post-COVID U.S., and hundreds of thousands have made asylum claims to authorities at the border.
But for the right, “Biden’s border crisis” is a deliberate effort by a president who does not want to stop the invasion.
Every possible news event, from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the end of Title 42 deportation authority to the upcoming presidential election, brings a new wave of fearmongering over the “invaders” who will “replace” the population. They’re using this rhetoric to argue for extreme measures on the border and to denounce Biden for not pursuing them. As Carlson claimed, “Our military could seal the border with Mexico in days. That would save American lives, it would restore order, and it would end the invasion.”
Texas, with its long border with Mexico and numerous Republican politicians eager for the right-wing media’s spotlight and support, is a natural subject for this coverage. Indeed, over a three-day period in July 2022, Media Matters found that Fox aired at least 20 claims that the state was being invaded by migrants. That period overlapped with a push by county officials to get Abbott to declare an “invasion” under the Constitution in order to seize control of border policy from the federal government.
At the time, legal experts pointed out that the effort was ridiculous and based on “a total mischaracterization of what an invasion is.” But the GOP’s propaganda wing currently wields more influence over the party’s legal policy than its legal experts, and 20 months later, Texas is in a standoff with the federal government based on its “invasion” talking point.