Immigration Myths | Media Matters for America

Immigration Myths

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  • The big problem with the term “catch and release”

    Blog ››› ››› DINA RADTKE


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Over the past few months, as President Donald Trump’s administration works to dismantle protections for asylum-seeking immigrants, the use of the term “catch and release” -- a dehumanizing phrase that describes U.S. policies meant to provide certain rights to vulnerable immigrants -- has skyrocketed on cable news networks.

    “Catch and release” is generally used to refer to any policy that allows immigrants to be released from detention while their cases are being processed. These so-called “catch and release” policies recognize the basic humanitarian rights of unaccompanied minors, asylum seekers, and families with children. One such policy prohibits the detention of families for more than 20 days and enforces other standards for detention; another bars the U.S. government from deporting people back to places where they could be harmed or killed; and a third awards “more cautious asylum hearing proceedings for [unaccompanied children], because it is thought that they are more likely to be victims of human trafficking.” Experts have noted that rolling back these protections would lead to severe trauma for immigrants (and benefits for the private prison industry.)

    Many observers have pointed out that the term “catch and release” evokes imagery of a fish or other animal being hunted and then released. The book Governing Immigration Through Crime: A Reader explains the disparaging effect of the term:

    Although the term catch and release appears benign, it actually serves to dehumanize immigrants. The term comes from sport fishing, where it refers to the practice of catching fish and then throwing them back into the water. Using such a term in the context of immigration policing essentially reduces the apprehension and incarceration of human beings to a sport.

    But as the Trump administration continues to pick away at these protections, cable news outlets have ramped up their use of the phrase, with Fox News leading the way. An analysis of use of the term “catch and release” on cable news by the GDELT Project using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive demonstrates a huge spike in the term’s prevalence throughout 2018 compared to previous years. Notably, on June 25, use of the term “catch and release” was the highest it has been since at least 2009 across MSNBC, Fox, and CNN:

    Fox and other right-wing outlets have weaponized the phrase to fearmonger about a foreign invasion at the southern border, spreading misinformation about the policy and its effects.

    The Trump administration’s policies to curtail immigrant protections have not deterred immigrants from making the journey to the southern border, as the administration had claimed. In fact, the number of apprehensions of unaccompanied minors at the border jumped 50 percent in May, shortly after Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared an end to so-called catch and release policies. Even so, Fox has argued that the policies encourage unbridled immigration to the U.S.

    Alleged smugglers reportedly make up only .61 percent of the total number of family units apprehended at the border. Nevertheless, Breitbart.com and Fox have pushed the administration’s misleading claim that protections for immigrants enable human smuggling.

    Asylum seekers face a rigorous vetting process to prove their claims and, all too often, those with genuine fear of return are denied asylum. Yet Laura Ingraham argues that immigrants are taking advantage of the policies to falsely claim asylum with the expectation that they will be released and be able to disappear into the system.

    In 2017, 60,000 immigrants attended their court hearings after they were released from custody at the border, compared to 40,000 who did not, and only 25 percent of cases were decided without a defendant in 2016. Yet, right-wing media have perpetuated the myth that the majority of immigrants do not show up for their court dates.

    Like the terms “illegal immigrant” and “chain migration,” “catch and release” is just another tool that nativists use to dehumanize immigrants. And at a time when the president of the United States has painted immigrants as “animals” and immigration as an infestation, mainstream media should avoid using language that might serve to legitimize this deceptive narrative.

  • Fox & Friends makes false claims about immigration to link immigrants to violent gang MS-13

    Blog ››› ››› DINA RADTKE

    Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade, who is known for spreading misinformation on immigration matters, spouted a number of falsehoods this morning in an attempt to link Latino immigrants to the brutal gang MS-13.

    On June 13, Kilmeade interviewed the sheriff of Frederick County, MD, Chuck Jenkins, to discuss the gang’s influence in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Jenkins gained attention in 2013 for embracing a controversial program 287(g), also known as the “show me your papers” law, which has facilitated the deportation of “large numbers of Frederick Latinos caught without papers after being arrested only for driving without a license” and led to the illegal detention of one Latina woman.

    While MS-13, a violent gang, is a serious problem in some communities, Fox News has exaggerated their presence in the course of their anti-immigrant fearmongering. Together, Kilmeade and Jenkins blamed unaccompanied minors and lax immigration policies for the rise of the gang with a host of lies:

    Kilmeade incorrectly linked the influx of unaccompanied minors into the country to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, claiming, “When these kids came flooding across the border, in many cases, the unaccompanied minors, they were picked up under the DACA provision, and they were scattered in these communities.” But long-standing U.S. immigration policy has granted special protections to unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. DACA was implemented as a solution for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and who had already been residing in the country, not as a legal basis for them to be accepted when they cross the border. And there is little evidence that, as many conservatives have implied, DACA encouraged unaccompanied minors to make the journey to the U.S.

    Kilmeade suggested unaccompanied minors crossing the border are affiliated with MS-13. Only a very small fraction are suspected of gang affiliation. According to the acting chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, of the 45,400 unaccompanied minors who were apprehended per fiscal year from 2012-2017, only 159 had confirmed or suspected gang affiliations and 56 were suspected or confirmed to be affiliated with MS-13. It is more widely accepted that young immigrants living in the U.S. who have little access to community resources are forcibly recruited into gangs. 

    Kilmeade encouraged profiling unaccompanied minors with tattoos to identify MS-13 members. Authorities are already using physical indicators like tattoos to wrongly designate undocumented immigrants as gang members in order to detain or deport them. One federal judge recently found that ICE had improperly targeted a DACA beneficiary by claiming a tattoo proved he was involved in a gang.

    Jenkins claimed that there were “well over 5,000” MS-13 members in three Maryland counties located just northwest of Washington, D.C. A White House press briefing statement in February by the acting assistant attorney general put the number closer to 3,000 across the D.C. metro region, and last year U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement put the number even lower, telling The Washington Post that the gang has 900 to 1,100 members in the entire D.C. region and 10,000 across 40 states.

    From the June 13 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:

    BRIAN KILMEADE (CO-HOST): You’ve got Northern Virginia, Long Island, and Boston. When these kids came flooding across the border, in many cases, the unaccompanied minors, they were picked up under the DACA provision, and they were scattered in these communities but not to rich schools. You have schools that are struggling, and they make these classes, which are already too big, even more unwieldy, and they don't even speak English, so they need even more support.

    SHERIFF CHUCK JENKINS (FREDERICK COUNTY, MD): That's right, Brian. And, listen, Prince George's County, Montgomery County, this part of Maryland, now into Frederick County, my jurisdiction, was a targeted area for relocation. For some reason -- and we know the MS-13 population in this part of Maryland that I'm talking about is well over 5,000.

    KILMEADE: When a kid comes across and says, “I’m a refugee,” but he’s got neck tattoos, that might be the first clue.

    JENKINS: That is a clue.

    KILMEADE: Yeah. Nearly a dozen parents told the Post they were worried about gang activity at their school. And it happens to be just 10 miles from the White House.

    JENKINS: How can it be anywhere in the United States, Brian? How could we have let this happen?

    KILMEADE: How could it happen again? What have we done to change things?

    JENKINS: Well, we haven't done enough yet. What we need to do is a push from this administration, from the Justice Department, to declare this organization a terrorist organization and clean them up, get them out of here, and get them out of this country.

    KILMEADE: So what kind of support are you asking? Do you need money? Do you need people?

    JENKINS: We need a declaration from the White House, from President Trump, from the Department of Justice to allow local law enforcement to be effective, get in there and clean these pockets of crime out.

    KILMEADE: Yeah. You don't have to dig out the next Nikolas Cruz. They’re sitting there right in front of you, declaring they’re MS-13, daring you to kick them out. And you, sheriff, on with us telling us, “Give me the power to do so.”

  • Conservative media disingenuously demanding context about Trump’s “animals” comment have ignored that same context for years

    Right-wing media have consistently praised Trump’s conflation of immigrants with criminals

    Blog ››› ››› DINA RADTKE

    In the past, right-wing media have praised President Donald Trump’s immigration rhetoric, even as it conflated all undocumented immigrants with gang members. Now, after Trump pivoted from a vague question about MS-13 yesterday to say some undocumented immigrants “aren’t people, these are animals,” right-wing media are attacking mainstream outlets for reporting on the ambiguity of his remark and insisting he was talking exclusively about MS-13 gang members. But those same right-wing media figures, along with Trump, have helped foster an environment in which a mention of the term “MS-13” evokes undocumented immigrants, and this false association is having negative consequences for immigrants across the country.

    During a roundtable discussion about California’s so-called sanctuary laws on Wednesday, a local sheriff said to Trump, “There could be an MS-13 member I know about. If they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about them.” In response, Trump talked about “people coming into the country” and made no explicit reference to gang members:

    “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — we’re stopping a lot of them. But we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people, these are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It’s crazy.”

    Many in the media reported accurately that Trump had called “some deported immigrants” or “some unauthorized immigrants” animals, and several journalists noted the ambiguity of his comment. But pro-Trump outlets opportunistically attacked mainstream outlets for their coverage, arguing that they had selectively edited his comment or taken him out of context. Infowars described the coverage as a “shocking level of deceit,” and CNN’s Rick Santorum complained that “this is one of the reasons that a big chunk of the country just turn off the media when they start going after the president.”

    Trump’s vague response had made no mention of the gang, and whether he was referring to gang members or undocumented immigrants in general, the dehumanizing effect was the same. As Vox pointed out, Trump’s strategic rhetorical ambiguity allows him to “refer to some specific criminals, call them horrible people and animals, say that their evil justifies his immigration policy, and allow the conflation of all immigrants and all Latinos with criminals and animals to remain subtext.”

    Right-wing media have boosted this type of rhetoric by praising Trump for erroneously hyping MS-13’s presence in the U.S. as a product of lax immigration policies, and many have conflated MS-13 and immigrants themselves. On any given day, trivial news about MS-13 -- a brutal gang founded in Los Angeles that has been able to grow in strength due to stringent deportation policies and mass incarceration -- will be broadcast in the conservative media sphere, almost always laced with complaints about lax immigration policies.

    The reality is that, while many MS-13 members are undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants are not MS-13 members, and the right-wing media campaign to conflate the two is having serious consequences.

    Such rhetoric mirrors actual policies being put in place by the Trump administration. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been using dangerously broad criteria to label undocumented immigrants as gang members, giving the agency cover to carry out hundreds of arrests under the auspices of an “anti-gang operation.” Just this week, a federal judge ruled that ICE outright lied to frame one person as “gang-affiliated.” Nonetheless, right-wing outlets dutifully report on the raids, casting ICE agents as heroes and the non-criminal immigrants as animals.

    Whether or not Trump was referring to MS-13 by calling people who cross the border “animals,” right-wing media and agencies like ICE benefit from his irresponsible and coded language, and non-criminal immigrants will bear the brunt of the fallout.

  • Homeland Security Secretary uses Fox News interview to lie about violence against border patrol agents

    As the Trump administration moves to house immigrant children in sheds, conservatives aim to gin up sympathy for the detainers

    Blog ››› ››› DINA RADTKE

    On May 16, Fox’s Laura Ingraham hosted Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on The Ingraham Angle for a softball interview in which Nielsen falsely claimed that there has been a 73 percent increase in assaults on border patrol agents. Ingraham’s failure to push back on Nielsen’s lie is representative of Fox’s recent strategy of circulating DHS’ lies in order to help foster sympathy for federal immigration agents who are terrorizing immigrant families.

    Last night on her show, Ingraham played a clip of a Senate hearing in which Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) asked Nielsen about DHS’ new policy that would separate immigrant families at the border and then asked, “How do you as DHS secretary combat ... the emotional push on this?” Nielsen responded, “It is the law,” adding, “For every [immigrant] sob story, we have 73 percent border assault increase. We have people like Kate Steinle. Where is the compassion for the flip side of this conversation?”

    Nielsen’s claim that there has been a 73 percent increase in “border assault,” presumably meaning assaults on Border Patrol agents, is false. According to The Intercept, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency within DHS, has “falsely and grossly inflat[ed] the data” on cases of assault at the southern border, “making it appear to the public that far more agents were assaulted.”

    In the past, Ingraham and Fox News have done their part to hype DHS’ false narrative that agents are under attack and to promote the agency’s brand. Earlier this year, Ingraham and her Fox cohorts spent weeks distorting the facts of Border Patrol agent Rogelio Martinez’s death to claim that he was the victim of a “vicious attack” at the southern border. But evidence indicated that Martinez’s death was an accident, and the FBI said it had “found no evidence of a homicide.” President Donald Trump repeated Fox’s botched reporting during a speech yesterday, calling Martinez’s death “horrific” and “violent.”

    In March, a spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) San Francisco field office resigned in protest after being asked to repeat the agency’s lie that “864 criminal aliens and public safety threats remain at large in the community” as a result of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s decision to warn her community about ICE raids. The lie was repeated on Fox throughout February and March, but a correction was never issued.

    And Fox’s morning show, Fox & Friends, repeatedly hosted representatives of Border Patrol-related organizations to praise the hosts for covering the asylum seekers fleeing violence in the “caravan” from Central America as “dangerous criminals” who were “going to come here and break the law.” The show has been criticized by others for this distorted and incendiary coverage.

  • Fox's botched reporting about a deceased border patrol agent makes it into Trump's speech to police officers

    Blog ››› ››› DINA RADTKE

    During a speech on May 15 at a memorial for fallen police officers, President Donald Trump spoke at length about a deceased border patrol agent, Rogelio Martinez, whose mysterious death was hyped repeatedly on Fox News in an attempt to cast undocumented immigrants as violent. The network omitted key facts of the case to argue that Martinez was killed in “an apparent ambush” by immigrants at the border, but investigators and FBI officials say his death was likely an accident and that there’s no evidence of a homicide.

    At the memorial, Trump described Martinez’s death as “horrific” and “violent” and underscored that Martinez “bravely confronted the cartels, the smugglers, the human traffickers, the gangs that threaten our communities.” His language was reminiscent of that of Fox News hosts, who had described Martinez’s death as “gruesome” and a “vicious attack” and “apparent ambush.”

    But Fox’s reporting was incomplete and misleading. It was based almost entirely on claims from the union that represents U.S. Border Patrol agents, and the network almost entirely ignored evidence from medical investigators and the FBI that showed Martinez’s death was likely the result of a lethal fall.

    Today, Trump appeared to repeat Fox’s flawed reporting and used Martinez’s death to advance his extremist immigration policies:

    PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Also here with us today is the family of border patrol agent Rogelio Martinez from El Paso, Texas. Agent Martinez, known as Roger to his friends and family, worked on a dangerous part of the southern border, a part that you've been reading about so much lately, and a part that we're doing a lot with. Agent Martinez took immense pride and joy in serving his country as a border patrol agent. He was extremely proud of what he did. Every day he would go to work and risk his life to keep America safe. Roger said he wanted to prevent terrorists and drugs from coming into our country. We all do. And we're going to get it done. But that's exactly what he did.

    He bravely confronted the cartels, the smugglers, the human traffickers, the gangs that threaten our communities. One night last November, Agent Martinez died in the line of duty. It was horrific, it was violent, and he was brave. To Agent Martinez's mom, Eliva, his son, Sergio, and the entire Martinez family, Roger's profound and unselfish love of country is an inspiration to every American.

  • ICE is wrongly designating immigrants as gang members to deport them -- and conservatives are thrilled

    Blog ››› ››› DINA RADTKE


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has repeatedly used ambiguous criteria to wrongfully accuse undocumented Latino immigrants of being affiliated with gangs -- often the brutal, Los Angeles-founded street gang MS-13 -- as a pretense to arrest them. Right-wing media outlets have responded by hyping the narrative of the prevalence in the U.S. of MS-13 to promote ICE.

    There have been a number of reports that ICE uses vague and sometimes overly broad criteria to wrongfully label a person as affiliated with a gang, which allows officers to arrest people without a criminal warrant. The result is unjustified arrests of law-abiding undocumented immigrants and overinflated numbers of how many undocumented immigrants are gang members, which right-wing media broadcast to their audiences without proper context.

    Last week, hosts and guests on Fox News mentioned gangs in the context of immigration on at least five different occasions. The Washington Examiner and Drudge Report also hopped on the bandwagon.

    But according to a CityLab report, gang databases maintained by states and ICE are often “riddled with error.” The report pointed to California’s CalGang database as an example, which has been shown to include “unfounded entries” and “hundreds of names that should have been purged years ago.” Many juveniles were added to this database without being notified, and some of the information in these databases may be violating individuals’ privacy rights, the report states. The New Yorker reported that “ICE identifies someone as a gangster if he meets at least two criteria from a long list that includes ‘having gang tattoos,’ ‘frequenting an area notorious for gangs,’ and ‘wearing gang apparel.’” And The Intercept wrote that “gang documentation is a unilateral designation by law enforcement and is extremely difficult to challenge in criminal court. … Challenging gang classification by law enforcement is more difficult during deportation proceedings because defendants cannot compel the government to disclose the evidence against them as they can in criminal court.”

    As a result of these tactics, ICE has been targeting undocumented immigrants who haven’t been shown to be involved in any criminal activity. Daniel Ramirez Medina, for example, who was supposed to be protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, was placed in ICE custody, supposedly for gang involvement, for more than six weeks before being released. According to The Intercept, “the sum of the evidence is a tattoo on his arm that immigration officials believe is gang related, and statements that he allegedly made in custody” about people he spends time with. Similarly, ICE arrested -- and used excessive force against -- Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez after police erroneously identified him as a gang member. He was left with a fractured shoulder and loss of vision in one eye, and was denied proper medical attention while in custody. The New Yorker reported that because of ICE’s “nebulous indicators,” a teenager in Long Island, NY, was put in deportation proceedings for reasons including that he wore a Brooklyn Nets hat and allegedly performed “a gang handshake.” The third reason was his girlfriend: a 16-year-old U.S. citizen who had been kidnapped by a previous boyfriend after she ended their relationship when she found out he was an MS-13 member. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has argued that the tactic of “using unsubstantiated claims of gang affiliation to illegally detain teenagers” encourages profiling of Latinos, and the organization has filed a lawsuit alleging that federal immigration authorities were “wrongfully arresting Latino teens in New York” based on unfounded gang-related charges.

    Right-wing outlets are uninterested in telling such stories.

    Appearing on Fox News’ America’s Newsroom last week, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) pointed to Operation Raging Bull -- an anti-gang operation led by ICE in 2016 and 2017 -- to demonstrate the alleged pervasiveness of immigrant gang members in the U.S. When that operation concluded, the right-wing media sphere was set ablaze with headlines trumpeting ICE’s arrest of between 200 and 300 gang members (the final count was 214 arrests in the U.S.). But the right-wing media outcry breezed over the fact that more than half of those swept up in ICE’s “gang crackdown” were arrested not on criminal charges but on immigration violations.

    Misinformation about MS-13 is particularly prevalent among right-wing outlets, but mainstream media are also sometimes guilty of dramatizing coverage of the gang. Fordham Law professor John Pfaff once called out The Washington Post for “extrapolat[ing]” facts about MS-13’s presence in Long Island, NY, and Northern Virginia “to the nation as a whole” and warned of “the uncritical acceptance of law enforcement’s narrative.”

  • Ann Coulter wants the US military to kill immigrants attempting to enter the country

    Coulter: The National Guard should "shoot the illegals" because "Just standing there doesn't do a thing"

    Blog ››› ››› MADELINE PELTZ

    Syndicated right-wing columnist Ann Coulter criticized President Donald Trump’s plan to send the U.S. military to the border asking, “Are they going to shoot the illegals? Just standing there doesn't do a thing.”

    On April 4, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen announced the Trump administration will send the National Guard to the southwest border after days of angry tweets from President Trump about “open borders, drugs, and crime” coming in from Mexico. According to CNN, Nielsen said, “While plans are being finalized, it’s our expectation that the National Guard will deploy personnel in support of CBP’s border security mission” and that details will not be available today or on any specific timeline.

    The pronouncement comes after reports of a “caravan” of migrants traveling north from Honduras toward the border. The New York Times explains that “caravans” of migrants have occurred annually for the past five years “with little fanfare, virtually unnoticed north of the border with the United States.”

    Fox News seized the story to demonize those seeking asylum in the U.S. In reaction to the news, host Tucker Carlson described Mexico as a “hostile foreign power.” Carlson also hosted Jessica Vaughn of the hate group the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) who called the caravan a “walkathon for open borders” and a “stunt to test” the Trump administration’s resolve on border security. Fox News has also credited Trump with the dispersing of the group.

    On Wednesday following Secretary Nielsen’s announcement, Coulter suggested that the  National Guard “shoot the illegals” because “Just standing there doesn’t do a thing.”

    The tweet keeps with Coulter’s long-standing history of racism and hate against immigrants. She has repeatedly called for deporting Dreamers, suggested mass shootings would decrease by stopping immigration, and has decried the “browning of America.”

  • How a hate group is rewriting history to make Cesar Chavez's birthday "National Border Control Day"

    Blog ››› ››› DINA RADTKE

    For years, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has pushed to rename Cesar Chavez Day -- a holiday to commemorate the farm workers’ rights activist -- as “National Border Control Day,” taking Chavez’s comments on undocumented immigrants out of context to claim he supported anti-immigrant measures. CIS may now get its wish, as Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) has introduced a proposal to make March 31 “National Border Control Day,” a move being promoted by some conservative media.

    Mark Krikorian, the executive director of CIS, is a contributor to the conservative publication National Review and has repeatedly used his platform to try to spur a grass-roots movement to change the holiday. But his organization, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed an anti-immigrant hate group, has reach that extends beyond National Review. The group is routinely cited by a number of other outlets in the right-wing media sphere, many of which are following its lead and promoting CIS and Gohmert’s effort to rewrite Chavez’s legacy. While right-wing outlets are laser-focused on Chavez’s early comments on immigration, they tend to ignore the ways in which his position evolved.

    It’s true that Chavez initially voiced strong opposition to the presence of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., at one point referring to them with derogatory terms such as “wetbacks” and “illegals”, out of fear that they would undermine the United Farm Workers’ (UFW) unionizing effort. The right’s eagerness to associate Chavez with a more militarized border comes from his now-infamous “wet lines,” a violent protest in which UFW patrolled the United States’ southern border with the intention of intercepting undocumented immigrants attempting to cross.

    But this account of Chavez’s legacy is an incomplete one. The civil rights icon exhibited a shift in his position around 1973, when he was influenced by the greater Mexican American rights movement. Chavez came to fight against the exploitation of all farm workers, documented and undocumented, as demonstrated in part by his opposition to a law requiring employers to verify the immigration status of employees and his support for the 1986 bill that provided a pathway to citizenship for 3 million people. While Chavez’s position on illegal immigration was complicated, it is disingenuous for CIS to imply that Chavez would support “ridding the labor market of illegal immigrant workers.”

    This context undermines CIS’ attempt to normalize its anti-immigrant views, yet its right-wing media allies are obliging the group’s revisionist history. The fact that at least one lawmaker is taking steps to realize one of CIS' dreams shows the hate group’s growing influence under President Donald Trump. By advocating for this holiday, CIS and Gohmert are cherry-picking uninformed 1970s-era talking points on illegal immigration. While it’s unlikely right-wing media will dial back their relationship with the group, mainstream media outlets should cover CIS with skepticism and be sure to accurately convey the group’s nativist agenda.