There’s been a ton of chatter to the effect that Republicans are on offense against Democrats on immigration and national security alike. Yet to convert these issues into political gain, some Republicans apparently believe they need to go to extraordinary lengths to conflate terrorism and illegal immigration into one giant, terrifying, hydra-headed threat to the country.
Exhibit A: GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, who is running for Senate in Arkansas. The Congressman told a tele-town-hall meeting that the Islamic State is actively working with Mexican drug cartels who are looking to expand into the terrorism business — and that the groups, working in tandem, could infiltrate the country and attack people in Arkansas.
On audio of the town-hall, which was recorded by Arkansas Democrats, the key moment comes at around the 10:50 mark. Cotton was asked by a voter why the children crossing the border were allowed to stay for months (presumably while awaiting a court date). Cotton launched into a long answer about amnesty and the need to build a border fence, and added (emphasis mine):
“The problem is with Mark Pryor and Barack Obama refusing to enforce our immigration laws, and refusing to secure our border. I’ll change that when I’m in the United States Senate. And I would add, it’s not just an immigration problem. We now know that it’s a security problem. Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism.
“They could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas. This is an urgent problem and it’s time we got serious about it, and I’ll be serious about it in the United States Senate.”
I hadn’t heard this version of this claim before, so I asked the Cotton campaign for back-up. Cotton spokesman David Ray pointed me to a series of articles from conservative media, which you can read here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Versions of this claim have been debunked. The National Republican Congressional Committee is running a new ad attacking a House Democrat from Arizona for failing to secure the border by claiming: “Evil forces around the world want to harm Americans every day. Their entry into our country? Through Arizona’s back yard.” But, as Time magazine reports, federal officials have repeatedly stated that there is no active plot or operational threat that would entail ISIS infiltrating the southern border.
Congressman Cotton’s version seems to go a step further, envisioning an active, ongoing collaborative effort between the Islamic State, and Mexican drug cartels who are looking to diversify by branching out into terrorism, whose end goal is to kill Americans on U.S. soil.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow has performed an anatomy of this developing story on the right. Blow concluded that it originated on a conservative website, which suggested that ISIS may be “working to infiltrate the U.S. with the aid of transnational drug cartels.” A Republican Congressman from Texas similarly said ISIS and Mexican drug cartels have been “talking to each other.” And from there, it was onward to Fox News. Some of the sources Blow found overlap with the Cotton campaign’s back-up materials from conservative media.
For Congressman Cotton, this story is something of a political two-fer. On the one hand, he has sought to exploit the ISIS threat to attack Democratic Senator Mark Pryor as weak on national security. Meanwhile, Cotton has also sought to exploit the crisis of migrant children crossing the southern border to attack Pryor as weak on border security. Yet each of these lines of attack may be at risk of losing potency. After all, Cotton voted just as Pryor did on how to respond to the ISIS threat, supporting Obama’s plan to arm the Syrian rebels. Meanwhile, the migrant crisis has faded from the news — and perhaps so have fears about the border.
And so, through the wonders of political alchemy, Cotton has fused the two charges together, reinvigorating both and making the new product far more frightening than either one on its own ever was.