For Tom Homan, the answer is always simple, no matter the question: Harsh punishment and brutal tactics get the job done. As a lifelong cop and former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement who has found a new career as a Fox News pundit, Homan deals in absolutes, regardless of his job title.
“Look, when it came to zero tolerance, it worked,” Homan said in a May 2020 interview, explaining and justifying the Trump administration’s family separation border policy, which he'd been advocating for since his time in the Obama administration. “Law enforcement uses zero tolerance across this country all the time, whether it’s drug enforcement or prostitution.”
Homan is one of three prominent border cops turned right-wing pundits who exert considerable influence in conservative media and policy circles. Along with Todd Bensman and Jaeson Jones, both former officers at the Texas Department of Public Safety, Homan pushes his hardline nativist messaging to any and all audiences that will have him. He and Bensman are both fellows at organizations founded by John Tanton, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.” Jones covers the border for Fox News competitor Newsmax, but he and Homan frequently collaborate even though they work for rival networks.
As ex-cops, Homan, Bensman, and Jones speak with a practitioner's authority. Their claimed expertise, supposedly gleaned from firsthand experience, allows them to mask xenophobia as hard-won knowledge about public safety. They provide a faux-empirical justification for anti-migrant policies, giving viewers a sense that they’re getting the unvarnished truth from people who have lived it. (In reality, border officers are frequently ignorant about basic immigration facts.) But the role these three play isn’t to inform; it’s to reinforce existing anti-immigrant prejudices and provide scaffolding for new laws and policies restricting immigration.
Tom Homan: From family separation architect to Fox News stardom
Of this cop-turned-pundit trio, Homan is the most influential. He has made at least 357 appearances on weekday Fox News since becoming a contributor in August 2018, affording him a massive platform to influence conservative thinking about immigration. Homan’s history in border enforcement — which dates back to 1984, when he became a Border Patrol agent and later joined the Immigration and Naturalization Service — is integral to the authority he commands among conservative activists, politicians, and audiences.
One Fox appearance from 2019 shows how Homan uses his sway to legitimize outlandish proposals — in this case, sending the U.S. military to Mexico to target drug cartels. In late November of that year, then-President Donald Trump floated the idea of designating Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations, which could potentially facilitate operations into the country. Days later, Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade interviewed Homan and asked about a recent mass shooting in Mexico that left 21 people dead.
“Tom, I know you say we should go help — but don’t we need to be asked?” Kilmeade said to begin the segment.
“Well, yeah. I think that would be great, and I think the Mexican president is going to ask,” Homan replied. “He has proven he can’t handle it. Mexico has failed at handling these cartels for the last three decades. They can’t succeed without us.”
Homan then approvingly referenced the U.S. invasion of Panama to oust its then-leader Manuel Noriega before arguing that Mexican drug cartels should be formally designated as terrorist organizations to empower federal law enforcement — and presumably the U.S. military — to wage war against Mexican drug cartels on their home soil.
“If we declare them [Mexican drug cartels] a terror group, what changes?” Kilmeade asked. “What does that legally let us do?”
“I think that helps the U.S. do some out-of-the-country operations to attack these organizations,” Homan responded.
If there was any confusion about where Homan stood, in its write-up of the interview, FoxNews.com characterized Homan’s remarks as “agreeing that the cartels should be designated as a terror organization by the U.S."
Homan wasn’t the only conservative pushing that idea, but he was an early adopter. Just as importantly, his years of appearances since then on Fox News have helped solidify the racist ideas used to justify the proposed terrorist group designation: that the United States is being invaded by migrants, and that those migrants are responsible for bringing a majority of the fentanyl that arrives in the country — which is factually incorrect.
Trump eventually backed off his threat to designate the cartels as terrorist organizations. But the idea of using such designations to confer authority on federal authorities to bomb or invade Mexico has essentially become a consensus position on the right. Nearly every candidate in the Republican presidential primary, for instance, sounds indistinguishable from Homan on immigration policy, with each of them pushing for hardline restrictionist policies that are justified by dehumanizing language about immigrants “invading” the southern border.
Homan's hawkishness has been rewarded, as the conservative media and policy ecosystem has warmly embraced him since his departure from the Trump administration. In addition to his employment at Fox News, he was named a visiting fellow at the influential Heritage Foundation in 2022. He’s also a senior fellow at the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the nonprofit legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a branch of the Tanton network that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group.
Given Homan's association with that Tanton-founded organization, it’s not surprising that he has repeatedly pushed the great replacement theory, the racist idea that liberal elites are bringing people of color to the United States to replace white people. On October 11, Homan appeared on the show of a Hitler-praising antisemite where he claimed that the Biden administration is trying to purposely destroy the country by opening the borders to bring in “millions” of “future Democratic voters.”
Homan has pursued commercial endeavors as well. In 2020, Hachette Book Group published Homan’s Defend the Border & Save Lives, complete with a front-cover blurb from his Fox News colleague Mark Levin. He is a featured speaker at JL Wilkinson Consulting, a right-wing talent agency that also represents far-right cops Sheriff David Clarke and Sheriff Mark Lamb.
Homan also founded Homeland Strategic Consulting, which pulled in over $83,000 in consulting fees for services provided to Arizona businessman and failed Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jim Lamon, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Money began flowing Homan’s way just four months after he publicly endorsed Lamon’s candidacy. (Homan denied that the endorsement was related to the consulting contract.)
Homan has extensive links to extremist organizations and individuals, beyond his affiliation with the Tanton network. Earlier this year, Homan spoke virtually at an event honoring Mel K, a QAnon influencer and conspiracy theorist who has spread lies about the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich and denied the results of the 2020 election.
In March 2022, HuffPost reported that Homan had been scheduled to speak at an event organized by white nationalist Nick Fuentes. When confronted by HuffPost about his appearance at the racist conference, Homan blamed his assistant for arranging the appearance and the fact that “so many names of conservative groups sound the same."
Homan then claimed that he left the conference after reading that Fuentes was supportive of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but he stopped short of criticizing the openly bigoted group. “I’m not saying this is a bad group,” Homan said, referring to Fuentes and his racist supporters, known as groypers. “I’m saying I don’t know."
Later that year, Homan co-founded an anti-immigration organization that bears the same name as Homan’s book, Defend the Border & Save Lives, with fellow Islamophobe Tom Trento. In addition to helping Homan pilot the new group, Trento, who once told an audience at a 9/11 commemoration in 2013 that the goal of “all Islam” is to “get every single one of us to convert to Islam,” also runs an organization called The United West, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as an anti-Muslim group.
This March, Homan was named CEO of election denialist organization The America Project, founded by far-right multimillionaire Patrick Byrne. In addition to his duties as CEO, Homan also heads the group’s Border911 initiative, which has sponsored anti-migrant events throughout the country. The organization frequently posts videos of its rallies on Rumble, an extreme right-wing YouTube clone. Newsmax’s Jaeson Jones is also part of Border911, and he spoke alongside Homan at many of the group’s recent events.
Homan frequently denies that he has any political agenda, instead couching his preferences simply as apolitical enforcement of existing laws enacted by Congress. In 2018, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Homan if ICE’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy, a policy Homan was overseeing at the time, was “humane."
“I think it’s the law,” Homan replied.
“It may be the law, it may be the policy, but is it humane?” Blitzer asked again.
“I think it’s the law, and I’m a law enforcement [officer],” Homan reiterated. “I must follow the law.”
But for Homan, not all laws are meant to be followed. In April, he headlined a Border911 fundraiser with Donald Trump at the former president’s residence and club Mar-a-Lago to raise money for families of people who participated in the January 6 insurrection. Speaking to the crowd, Homan reminisced about an early conversation in which Trump told him to “enforce the laws, that's all I'm asking you to do.”
“We kicked ass,” Homan reflected. “We kicked ass.”
Todd Bensman: Not an expert on immigration, by his own admission
Like Homan, Bensman has leveraged his history in law enforcement into a new career as an immigration restrictionist pundit and writer. Most of his work appears on the website for the Center for Immigration Studies — another branch of the anti-immigrant Tanton network — but he’s also written two books, and has published pieces at The Daily Wire, the Daily Mail, the New York Post, and other prominent conservative news outlets. He’s been on Fox News and Fox Business combined at least 27 times since 2017, according to a search of an internal Media Matters database and Bensman’s official website.
As Media Matters previously reported, Bensman has also appeared on extremist streaming programs as well. In June, he appeared on The Stew Peters Show, whose eponymous host is a white nationalist. He’s also been on at least three programs or platforms with ties to the QAnon conspiracy theory, including: The Mel K Show, Making Sense of the Madness (hosted by QAnon supporter Sean Morgan), and The Debbie Aldrich Show, from Creative Destruction Media, an outfit that in addition to endorsing QAnon also posts racist and anti-LGBTQ content.
In 2018, the Center for Immigration Studies brought Bensman on as a senior national security fellow. From his first days at the organization, Bensman stoked fears about terrorist “infiltration” at the southern border, a framing he regularly returns to despite evidence that conservatives wildly overstate the perceived threat as a way to demonize migrants.
In mid-September, Bensman spoke at a conference that also hosted John Eidsmoe, a retired Air Force officer who once spoke at a conference organized by a white supremacist group and has praised Confederate leader Jefferson Davis and pro-slavery advocate John C. Calhoun. QAnon-promoter Alex Newman was also a featured speaker at the event.
Bensman frequently adopts a flood-the-zone style of content production, using his Center for Immigration Studies-sponsored trips to the border to create images and videos that confirm the bigoted prior assumptions of his intended audience. One of his recent successful operations was seeding a myth that the Biden administration was providing all migrant families with $2,200 monthly cost-of-living checks. Experts fact-checked the claim as false in real time, and news organizations have long debunked earlier versions of the persistent rumor, but a granular look at how Bensman’s misinformation traveled is instructive.
On September 6, Bensman posted a video on X purportedly showing a Border Patrol agent saying migrant families “get a check every month” of “about $2,200.” Bensman characterized the imaginary program as a “scam,” but acknowledged that he would have “to independently confirm” its existence, which he did not do. Instead, Bensman repeated the false claim three days later, even while admitting the accusation was “short of details” and “unverified.”
In the meantime, the conspiracy theory-amplifying pipeline kicked into overdrive. The same day he first posted on X about the supposed checks, Bensman went on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast and continued to spread the myth.
“The government gives them cost-of-living checks, for one family per month: $2,200. So if the father brings one of the kids and the mother brings another of the kids, and they just act like two families, they’re pulling in $4,400 a month, according to that Border Patrol agent,” Bensman told Bannon. Bensman again acknowledged he hadn’t confirmed whether it was true or not, but that didn’t stop him from spending more than two minutes spreading the misinformation.
On September 7, junk news site The Gateway Pundit picked up the story, citing Bensman as its primary source.
The same day, Fox host Rachel Campos-Duffy parroted Bensman’s conspiracy theory, telling Fox’s audience that the Biden administration was “paying $2,200 per family."
Republican politicians spread the myth even further. “We are literally subsidizing our own invasion,” Rep. Matt Gaetz said on X, reposting The Gateway Pundit’s story. Former Trump official and Christian nationalist Russ Vought, a well-connected policy adviser on Capitol Hill, then reposted Gaetz.
Rep. Lauren Boebert repeated the $2,200-per-month claim on X/Twitter without any sourcing. When asked by local 9News Denver where she got her information, Boebert’s press office sent a link to the Gateway Pundit story. (9News’s ruling on Boebert’s statement? “Not true.”)
On September 10, Bensman obliquely walked back his initial claim, without clearly admitting he was wrong. He later defended himself to The Washington Post, saying: “I was hoping to get to the bottom of it. Maybe an expert would send a link or explain it.”
At least one element of Bensman’s story is true. As he inadvertently acknowledged, he is not an expert. He is a propagandist, and his distortions are all the more potent in right-wing media because of his history as a cop.
Jaeson Jones: Bringing the war on terror to Mexico
On May 19, Newsmax border correspondent Jaeson Jones posted a promotional video for The America Project and Border911 to his Instagram account. In the video, Jones, sitting alongside Homan, directly addresses Border Patrol agents.
“I’m Jaeson Jones, retired captain from the Texas Department of Public Safety, and someone who’s out there on the border every day working with you guys to try to get out what you’re going through to the American people,” Jones said.
No viewer would expect Newsmax, which has sought to outflank Fox News from the right, to adhere to journalistic standards of neutrality and balance, but it’s still remarkable that Jones would openly admit that his goal as a correspondent is to show what his fellow border cops are “going through” rather than gather facts. By his own admission, he’s not covering a story — he’s “working with” the Texas Department of Public Safety and Border Patrol agents.
When Jones, Homan, and Bensman speak, they are speaking on behalf of border cops and law enforcement writ large, acting as representatives of what journalist Jessica Pishko describes as a “baronial class” of public employees who enjoy special rights and privileges. These ex-cops are pushing the ideological and material interests of that class, with the end result of expanding law enforcement budgets and political influence. The explosion of federal spending on immigration and border enforcement stretches back for decades, but the fearmongering that Homan, Bensman, and Jones push has the predictable effect of directing ever more public funds to this repressive apparatus.
That dynamic explains, in part, why — like Homan — Jones has repeatedly called for the U.S. government to designate drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. Such a move would almost certainly open up vast resources for state and federal border officers, in addition to conferring more political power and legal authority on those departments.
In fact, Jones advocated for designating cartels as foreign terrorist organizations well before Trump ever publicly floated the idea.
During a June 18, 2019, interview with Lou Dobbs on Fox Business, Jones described cartels as “global violent networks who are acting as terrorist organizations around the world.” He added that several cartels had “gone through a quantum leap in capabilities,” in part because of “what they’ve learned from the FARC, which is a designated terrorist organization."
Jones was referring to the Colombian guerilla group that the United States designated as a foreign terrorist organization from 1997 to 2021, and the reference wasn’t incidental. In the early days of the war on terror, the group served a crucial role for another federal organization, the Drug Enforcement Agency.
As journalist Trevor Aaronson has described, in the wake of 9/11, the U.S. government began funneling money into any project that could be described as counterterrorism. With Washington focused on global terrorism, the DEA, a key combatant in the previous generation’s war on drugs, found itself sidelined and relatively starved of federal funds. To bolster its raison d'être, the agency invented a new category of crime — narcoterrorism — and used the FARC, a designated terrorist organization funded in part by drug trafficking, as a pry-bar to access all the counterterrorism money sloshing around Washington at the time.
Under the DEA’s new mission, agents and their informants pretended to be members of the FARC and engaged in elaborate sting operations targeting purported terrorists. Given the FARC’s designation as a terror group, the DEA could claim that it stopped a would-be terrorist if its undercover agents convinced FARC rebels to act on their behalf. (Nevermind that they would have manufactured those would-be terrorists.) With federal resources on the line, fighting terrorism was as much a bureaucratic turf war as it was about waging any other kind of war.
As a former counterterrorism official at Texas Department of Public Safety, Jones likely would have known that specific history. More broadly, he surely understood how the federal funding game is played, and he kept pushing the new line. In a July 2019 interview, also on Lou Dobbs Tonight, Jones was even more explicit in calling for cartels to be labeled terror groups, and again referenced the FARC.
“These are terrorist organizations that are no longer just drug trafficking organizations,” Jones said. “They have evolved into something much larger."
“The U.S. government has not transitioned yet to look at them as terrorists and to designate them as terrorists but yet, they employ the FARC — that is a designated terrorist organization,” he added.
Jones repeated his calls that August, September, October, and November — when Trump publicly contemplated moving forward — and then again the following December, February, March, and June, all on Lou Dobbs Tonight. In the September segment, Jones told Dobbs he had lobbied four members of Congress, “trying to get this foreign terrorist designation.” In 2021, he appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to push for the change, and he continues to agitate for it from his new perch at Newsmax.
The once-fringe idea is now largely accepted as conventional wisdom on the right. Jones and Homan played a significant role in normalizing it, specifically by appealing to their identities as former cops. If their pitch is successful under the next Republican administration, their former agencies would almost certainly benefit handsomely from their advocacy.
The porous border between the hard-right and mainstream media
Homan, Bensman, and Jones are not the only former cops in the right-wing media and think tank ecosystem. One of Bensman’s colleagues at the Center for Immigration Studies, Jon Feere, is a former ICE and DHS official whom NPR quoted in June. Randy Clark, a writer at Breitbart, is retired from Border Patrol. Mark Morgan, former acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protections, is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and is a member of Homan's Border911. The list goes on. These figures agitate for nativist immigration policies, channeling reactionary law enforcement attitudes into content served up in conservative media. The answer for them is always zero tolerance, harsher punishments, and more funding and discretion for cops.
The cop-turned-pundit pipeline isn’t unique to conservative outlets, but these figures loom especially large in their reactionary ecosystem given the centrality of nativist politics in the age of Trump. The programs where they appear, especially on Fox News, often set the tone for how mainstream outlets frame immigration, as mainstream outlets frequently adopt language that there is a “crisis” at the border.
One recent example perfectly illustrates how the Tanton network’s reactionary messaging seeps into mainstream news coverage. In mid-September, Washington Post columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria called for the president to “use the power he has in existing law to suspend entirely the admission of asylum seekers while the system digests the millions of immigration cases already pending."
To support this extreme and seemingly illegal position, Zakaria cited Nolan Rappaport, a former Department of Homeland Security official who now writes xenophobic op-eds at The Hill. Zakaria identified Rappaport only as “a longtime congressional expert on the issue,” but there’s much more to the story.
Rappaport, as it turns out, appears to be profoundly influenced by the organizations that employ Homan and Bensman. Rappaport blurbed Bensman’s first book, has cited him in at least three recent op-eds, and cited the Center for Immigration Studies in another. Rappaport frequently directs his stories, which he posts on X, at the Center for Immigration Studies’ policy director by tagging her username and at the account for Immigration Reform Law Institute, where Homan is a legal fellow. The Immigration Reform Law Institute then regularly reposts Rappaport’s stories to its own feed.
The pipeline from the Center for Immigration Studies and Bensman, and the Immigration Reform Law Institute and Homan, to Rappaport to Zakaria is invisible to the average reader. But Homan, for his part, sees it clearly.
“Please support CIS,” Homan said at the end of the conversation where he defended zero tolerance punishment against sex workers, people who use drugs, and families who crossed the southern border. He was speaking with Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “When I was the director of ICE, even when I was running ERO — Enforcement and Removal Operations, number three in ICE — CIS was a great help to the rule of law and helping ICE do their job."
“And they’re on the right side of the argument, folks, and we’re in a fight for our — we’re in a fight for our lives right now,” he continued. “We’re in a fight for this country. CIS gets it. They’re on the right side of the issues and they’re helping shape immigration in the future. So please support them.”