Anti-immigrant rhetoric spiked in this election. Here’s why it’s dangerous

Anti-immigrant rhetoric spiked in this election. Here’s why it’s dangerous

The fear of immigrants illegally voting has been used to disenfranchise people of color and create mistrust in elections for more than 100 years

 Kristian Hernández /Center for Public Integrity

It was 100 years ago that Alexander Terrell, a former Confederate officer and Texas representative, claimed that “Mexicans are induced on election day to swim across the Rio Grande and are voted before their hair is dry.” 

The Terrell Election Law of 1903, fueled by false claims that non-citizens from Mexico were voting in Texas elections, restricted primaries in Texas to white voters only. 

Following the Civil War, the 15th Amendment of the Constitution in 1870 had banned states from restricting the right to vote on “account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Political parties still had wide leeway in nominating candidates for office, however, and this was a workaround that was quickly adopted throughout the South to take the right to vote away from recently freed Black men and other people of color.

A picture of Alexander Terrell, former Confederate officer and author of the 1903 Terrell Election Law which established “white primaries” in Texas. Photo courtesy of the Texas State Cemetery website

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled white primaries unconstitutional in 1944. Terrell’s rhetoric and unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud and immigrants coming across the border illegally became a permanent tactic.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric has featured prominently in Republican candidates’ campaign ads and speeches ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections. But watchdogs say this election cycle is different because of how much the GOP has embraced and promoted a more sinister mix of fringed conspiracy theories rooted in xenophobia and white supremacy.

Experts and voting rights advocates worry history is repeating itself as red herrings about non citizens voting and claims of an invasion at the border are used while lawmakers curtail voting rights and ballot access across most of the country. Immigration advocates worry the lies and hateful rhetoric brewing this election cycle could spur some to violence. 

That became apparent when a 21-year-old man walked into a Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019, in the border city of El Paso and used an AK-47 to kill 22 people. The fear of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” drove him more than 650 miles from his home. His mission: to kill Mexicans. 

This and other racist massacres committed across the country in recent years have been inspired by a fringe conspiracy theory, widely known as the “Great Replacement Theory” — the claim that Western elites, often injected with anti-Semitic rhetoric about Jewish powerbrokers, want to replace and disempower white Americans.

Once confined to the dark fringes of the internet including white nationalist sites, aspects of replacement theory have gone mainstream on primetime Fox News shows and is front and center for many GOP candidates, according to Zachary Mueller, political director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group that’s been tracking GOP messaging in political ads since 2018.

The group has tracked more than 600 messages about an invasion at the border from more than 100 GOP candidates, political action committees and right-wing media outlets this election season. More than 130 messages tracked by the group falsely claim Democrats are purposely allowing immigrants to enter the country illegally to gain voters. 

There is no statistically meaningful evidence of non-citizens voting in U.S. elections. And far from the border being “open,” record breaking numbers of migrants have been stopped by border patrol this year. 

A picture of the cover of a 1908 edition of the Terrell Election Law. Terrell’s law prompted the disenfranchisement of people of color throughout the South for more than four decades. Photo courtesy of

“Democrats are actively ignoring laws on the book and allowing millions of migrants to come into our country illegally. Why? Because the thinking goes that if they’re given enough handouts, these migrants will eventually be Democrat voters,” an election campaign email sent by Monica De La Cruz in September reads. De La Cruz is a Trump-backed GOP candidate running for Congress in Texas’ 15th District.

The replacement and invasion rhetoric were mainly on the fringes of the Republican party in 2018, Mueller said, but this year the number of messages is about five times higher and it’s coming from the leadership all the way down.

“That’s dangerous because some segments of those folks that believe that racist lies are going to take it upon themselves to act as vigilantes to try to stop it,” Mueller said.

In the wake of a mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket last fall, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the third-highest ranking House Republican, faced criticism for a series of Facebook ads that warned of a “permanent election insurrection,” arguing that Democrats want to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and “overthrow our current electorate.”

In an interview rebutting the allegations that her ads echoed the conspiracy theory that inspired the Buffalo shooter, Stefanik said there’s nothing racist about wanting a secure border or opposing mass amnesty.

Stefanik’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Democrats and immigration rights advocates have also condemned Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and state Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, for describing immigrants crossing the border as an invasion.

“We are being invaded,” Patrick said at a press conference this past year. “That term has been used in the past, but it has never been truer.”

Abbott said at the same presser that “homes are being invaded” as he announced the state would be spending an initial $250 million to construct a barrier at the state’s southern border with Mexico to fill in gaps that have remained since the border wall was first constructed nearly 30 years ago.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from El Paso, condemned Abbott’s and Patrick’s remarks in a tweet after the press conference.

“If people die again, blood will be on your hands,” Escobar wrote.

Abbott took it a step further: He issued an executive order in July that invoked the U.S. Constitution’s “Invasion Clause” and directed state law enforcement to arrest migrants and drop them off at ports of entry. Article IV Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution says the federal government “shall guarantee every state in this Union a republican form of government and shall protect each of them against invasion…”

(The term “republican” refers to a republic of representatives, not the Republican party.)

After years of former President Donald Trump demonizing undocumented immigrants and using the word invasion on a regular basis, more than half of Americans say there’s an “invasion” at the southern border, according to an August poll by NPR and Ipsos,

But experts say, “the current increase in apprehensions fits a predictable pattern of seasonal changes in undocumented immigration combined with a backlog of demand because of 2020’s coronavirus border closure,” according to a recent analysis by the Washington Post.

As Texas politicians continue to attack immigrants and sound the alarm on border security, they have also ramped up efforts to restrict access to the ballot box.

Last year, Abbott signed into law one of the nation’s strictest voting bills. The bill rolled back extended voting hours and drive-through voting, restricted voting by mail, added new voter ID requirements, banned some forms of organizing voter turnout and increased criminal penalties for violating election laws.

Abbott and Patrick did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The reality is that Texas is not alone: Access to the ballot box has gotten worse in 26 states, and this has been particularly bad for people of color, according to a Center for Public Integrity report looking at voting inequalities in all 50 states and Washington D.C.

False claims that non-citizens are voting and influencing elections have been used to justify some of those new restrictions. In Arizona, Republican legislators passed a new law requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote. It could have the most significant impact on the state’s elderly Indigenous population, who are less likely to have birth certificates or other documents proving citizenship. 

“It’s not politically popular to say, ‘Hey, I just don’t want non-whites to vote, so we’re going to create these arbitrary barriers so that only more middle-class white folks and affluent whites can vote,’ that’s not going to win you an election that’s pretty on face,” Mueller said. “So they create these other kinds of boogeyman to do that sort of thing.”

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Kristian Hernández is a senior reporter based in Fort Worth, Texas. Hernández is an award-winning journalist.


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