Talk of an Immigrant ‘Invasion’ Grows in Republican Ads and Speech

A campaign ad from a Republican congressional candidate from Indiana sums up the arrival of migrants at the border with one word. He doesn’t call it a problem or a crisis.

He calls it an “invasion.”

The word invasion also appears in ads for two Republicans competing for a Senate seat in Michigan. And it shows up in an ad for a Republican congresswoman seeking re-election in central New York, and in one for a Missouri lieutenant governor running for the state’s governorship. In West Virginia, ads for a Republican representative facing an uphill climb for the Senate say President Biden “created this invasion” of migrants.

It was not so long ago that the term invasion had been mostly relegated to the margins of the national immigration debate. Many candidates and political figures tended to avoid the word, which echoed demagoguery in previous centuries targeting Asian, Latino and European immigrants. Few mainstream Republicans dared use it.

But now, the word has become a staple of Republican immigration rhetoric. Use of the term in television campaign ads in the current election cycle has already eclipsed the total from the previous one, data show, and the word appears in speeches, TV interviews and even in legislation proposed in Congress.

The resurgence of the term exemplifies the shift in Republican rhetoric in the era of former President Donald J. Trump and his right-wing supporters. Language once considered hostile has become common, sometimes precisely because it runs counter to politically correct sensibilities. Immigration has also become more divisive, with even Democratic mayors complaining about the number of migrants in their cities.

Democrats and advocates for migrants denounce the word and its recent turn from being taboo. Historians and analysts who study political rhetoric have long warned that the term dehumanizes those to whom it refers and could stoke violence, noting that it appeared in writings by perpetrators of deadly mass shootings in Pittsburgh, Pa.; El Paso, Texas; and Buffalo, N.Y., in recent years.

Republicans defend using the word and see it as an apt descriptor for a situation that they argue has intensified beyond crisis levels and one that could help sway voters.

Mike Speedy, the Indiana congressional candidate whose ad used the word, is running on calls to tighten the nation’s southern border. Mr. Speedy, a state lawmaker, traveled nearly 2,000 miles to Yuma, Ariz., to film his ad among the rusty slabs of the border fence. He contended that invasion was an accurate word because it describes a force that overwhelms and does not necessarily involve weapons. He said in an interview that he was not concerned that the word could incite others to violence. “If they act on their hatred, they are a common criminal and they should be put to court,” he said.

The word invasion has appeared in 27 television ads for Republican candidates — accounting for more than $5 million in ad spending — ahead of the November 2024 election, according to early April data from AdImpact, a media tracking firm. That surpasses the 22 uses of the word during the entire 2022 midterm cycle, which totaled nearly $3.3 million in ad spending. During the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, advertisers spent just under $300,000 in four ads that deployed the term.

America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group, has tracked the word’s rise in Congress. The group has collected at least 20 examples of Republicans using it in floor speeches this legislative session, up from seven during the last session and none before that. The term appears in four pieces of legislation this year, compared with seven last year and three in 2022.

Analysts who study political rhetoric and extremism have continued to raise alarm that the word invasion and what they describe as similarly inflammatory language regarding immigration plays into replacement theory. The racist doctrine, which has circulated in far right-wing corners of the internet, holds that Western elites, sometimes manipulated by Jews, want to “replace” and disempower white Americans. The shooters in Pittsburgh, El Paso and Buffalo echoed the theory in online posts, and targeted Jews, Hispanics and Black people in their killings.

“An invasion by its very definition is a hostile entrance or a hostile encroachment,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former Obama administration official who now leads the homeland-security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “You are automatically perceiving people who are fleeing their countries for a million reasons — most of them not hostile — as enemies.”

Representative Alex Mooney, the West Virginia Republican competing against a Trump-endorsed candidate, echoed Mr. Speedy’s view. “There is film footage of people forcing their way into our country along the Texas-Mexico border and the Biden administration is just letting it happen,” he said.

Maca Casado, the Hispanic media director for the Biden campaign, said voters would again reject Mr. Trump’s immigration rhetoric, describing it as “cruel and anti-American politics as usual to distract from an agenda that does nothing to address the things voters actually care about.”

The Trump campaign said that Mr. Biden was allowing undocumented immigrants “to invade our border.”

“By definition, an invasion is an incursion by a large number of people or things into a place,” said Karoline Leavitt, the campaign’s national press secretary. “There is no better way to describe Joe Biden’s open border, which has allowed tens of millions of people to freely enter our country.”

Political speech stoking fears of an invasion at the southern border is as old as the border itself. The jagged, 2,000-mile line dividing Mexico and the United States was born of a war that left each side wary of attack from the other. During the 19th century, with Chinese laborers migrating to work on the railroads, rallying cries of a feared Chinese invasion led to the nation’s first exclusionary immigration laws based explicitly on race. Political leaders stirred similar fears regarding migrants from Japan, Korea, India and southern and Eastern Europe.

Pat Buchanan was among the few ardent users of the word in recent decades, warning of “immigrant invasions” eroding Western society during his unsuccessful campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination in the 1990s. And Gov. Pete Wilson of California, seeking re-election in 1992, ran ads urging Congress to “stop the invasion” of Mexican and other Latino immigrants.

Other Republicans followed suit. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, promising to finish Mr. Trump’s border wall, warned that “homes are being invaded.” His office has since argued that illegal immigration and drug smuggling are an “invasion” under the U.S. Constitution, authorizing Texas to “engage in war” in the name of border security.

Immigrant-rights groups argue the language has not helped curb border crossings — which started rising under Mr. Trump and slowed early on in the pandemic before increasing again — or aided Republicans in elections. Predictions of a red wave in 2022 fizzled despite Republican fear-mongering about migrants, said Zachary Mueller, senior research director at America’s Voice.

“Yes, it works to mobilize their base,” he said. “But I don’t think the vast majority of people are going to sign up for that level of vitriol.”

John Thomas, a Republican strategist in California, said he did not expect the talk of invasion to fade.

“The word invasion matches the intensity that a lot of the electorate feels on that issue right now,” he said. Its use is “only going to ramp up as we head into November.”

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