Right-wing media outlets resurface long-debunked myth that all migrants get $5,000 debit cards from the government

Sheriff Mark Lamb’s exaggerated claim echoes earlier versions of this misinformation

Right-wing media outlets are amplifying a long-debunked myth that all people who migrate to the United States are getting prepaid debit cards loaded with $5,000. The claim resurfaced thanks to Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, who made the charges on Fox News and on X (formerly Twitter) in a post that also included a link to a donations page for his Senate run.

Contrary to Lamb’s assertion, Newsweek reported that there “does not appear to be any U.S. government program that gives undocumented migrants $5,000 gift cards.” Pablo De La Rosa, a freelance border reporter with NPR and Texas Public Radio, wrote that Lamb’s claim “isn’t true.”   

Although versions of this myth have circulated for years, Lamb — a far-right figure who has appeared on QAnon shows and pushed election denialist conspiracy theories — appears to be channeling misinformation produced by anti-migrant propagandist Todd Bensman in early September. Bensman, a senior fellow at nativist think tank the Center for Immigration Studies, incorrectly asserted that all migrants crossing the border were getting $2,200 monthly cost of living checks courtesy of the Biden administration and their NGO partners, based on a single interview with a Border Patrol agent. He further claimed that parents coming over the border would divide their children and apply for these cards as separate families, thus further gaming the system. 

Bensman admitted at the time that he hadn’t verified his claims, but he nonetheless spread it on War Room, the podcast of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, and other platforms. Experts fact-checked him in real time, but his false claims spread across right-wing media and were further amplified by Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL). 

The Washington Post debunked Bensman’s semi-viral misinformation, and an Associated Press fact check further corrected the record as recently as October. As AP notes, it is true that some non-government organizations work with the State Department to provide some refugees — a legally distinct status — with a one-time cash payment, but both Bensman and Lamb’s claims are a wild distortion of that much narrower point. In general, migrants who cross the U.S. border without authorization are not eligible for federal benefits.

On December 5, Lamb echoed these unsupported claims on X, while also painting migrants as threats to public safety and as scapegoats for poverty in the country. Lamb’s sourcing for his claims is opaque; he appears to mainly be escalating the falsehoods that Bensman spread earlier this year.

“When these folks come across, and they’re processed, they’re being given a cell phone; a plane ticket to wherever they want to go in this country, so probably to a community near you; and a $5,000 Visa card,” Lamb said.

“So while this Christmas season you’re struggling to keep your lights on, while you’re struggling to pay your rent, put Christmas presents under the tree for your kids, we have our government giving people who came into this country illegally $5,000 gift cards,” he continued. “That’s the truth, folks.”

It isn’t, but that didn’t stop Lamb from repeating his comments nearly verbatim the following day on Fox & Friends First.

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Citation From the December 6, 2023, edition of Fox & Friends First

“These folks you’re seeing, a lot of these folks from Africa, China, all these people coming across, they’re going to get processed, and once they get processed, our government is going to give them a cell phone, they’re going to give them a plane ticket to where they want to go in this country, and they are going to give them a Visa card with $5,000 on it,” Lamb said. “While American families are struggling to pay bills to keep their lights on, to keep the rent paid, and put presents under the Christmas tree, our government is going to give people who came into this country illegally a phone, plane ticket, and $5,000 gift card.” 

The same day, Lamb appeared on Newsmax to slightly temper his accusations.

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Citation From the December 6, 2023, edition of Newsmax's Eric Bolling: The Balance

“I don't know if it's all of them,” Lamb admitted. “But I've gotten from a couple of good sources that once they leave — it's not coming from Border Patrol, let me make that very clear — this is coming, once they leave, the government is setting them up with nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, funded by American tax dollars that are giving them Visa cards up to $5,000.”

Former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka was also a guest on the show, and he pivoted to pushing the “great replacement” theory.

“How are we going to stay in power?” Gorka said, imitating a liberal. “Oh you're brown. Oh, you're black. Here's $5,000. We're going to amnesty you because you're brown and you're black. You're gonna vote for us, right?”

The next day Lamb took his message to prime time, appearing on Fox News’ Jesse Watters Primetime. He again refused to provide specifics on his sources, saying only that he’d spoken with “guys that work with Border Patrol.”

In all three cases, right-wing media personalities took Lamb's bogus assertions at face value despite significant evidence that they should've been treated with extreme skepticism. What's more, this episode underscores that the quickest way to get booked on conservative media is to concoct dangerous and dehumanizing narratives about migrants sucking up supposedly scarce resources. 

As happened months ago when Bensman made nearly identical false claims, Lamb’s comments were picked up by far-right sites and spread on X. On his campaign donation page, Lamb refers to the non-existent $5,000-per-migrant program as “outrageous” and “unacceptable.” The same could be said about demonizing migrants for political gain.