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How a picture turned a sea of humanity into an ‘invading army’

The Central American migrants walking to the border are not a plague or an armed invasion. They’re human.

Honduran migrants walk to the U.S. on a road linking Ciudad Hidalgo and Tapachula in Mexico on Sunday. (Pedro Pardo / AFP/Getty Images)

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Images of a sea of people walking toward the U.S. border have been splashed across the front pages of newspapers and recycled on cable news all week, suggesting immigrants are poised to swarm the border like zombies in a B-movie.

Often, the images come in the form of aerial photos where a single brown face can’t be made out, connoting an invading military force rather than what they are: women, men and children, some in flip-flops and threadbare shirts, fleeing a region that is home to one of the highest murder rates in the world.

The coverage is reinforced by language that is typically reserved for a plague or an organized army: The Associated Press published and then retracted a tweet calling them an “army of the poor.” On Twitter, anti-immigrant posters use #StopTheInvasion alongside #MAGA.

Even self-proclaimed members of the anti-Trump “resistance” have dehumanized the Central Americans while trying to defend them, by characterizing their value in the United States as “the help”:

This week, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists denounced coverage of the migrants that implied an “invasion.” Julio Ricardo Varela, co-host of the politics podcast “In The Thick” and founder of Latino Rebels, said that the nonstop fixation on the movement of the migrant caravan is playing out like a sporting event.

“There’s this notion that the migrants are on this ‘slow march’ or ‘inching’ to the United States,” Varela said. “It’s the language of the anti-immigration lobby.”

“We as a country have no problem criminalizing all these brown people, and the mainstream media has been complicit,” Varela said.

Again and again, the Trump administration has demonized and dehumanized immigrants, characterizing those who are fleeing violence and seeking better economic opportunities in the United States as criminals and rapists invading America.

The tactic of dehumanizing the “enemy” is not one invented by this administration. Historically, it has been perfected through movements powered by hate and bigotry.

The Holocaust, for instance, was facilitated by language. In 1933, Hitler establish his department of Nazi propaganda, which produced a 1940 film that compared the Jewish people to rats poised to “infect” the world. This year, Trump took to Twitter to comment that immigrants were “infesting” the United States, and the similar language did not go unnoticed.

The language of dehumanization is echoed now — but instead of a government propaganda office, we have social media, where messages of hate spread with a click. Actor and Trump supporter James Woods shared a video with his 1.8 million followers on Twitter that depicted images of migrants subtitled with the message, “here comes incurable diseases, fentanyl, MS-13 gangs.” The there was this tweet, shared by hundreds of people:

In the United States, there is a long history of white anxiety about the “immigration crisis,” fear that’s been used to support laws that protect the country’s white majority.

Earlier this year, ProPublica looked back at the origins of immigration laws. The 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act banned immigrants from Asian countries from immigrating to the United States. In 1927, James Davis, a eugenicist, sought to prop up immigration laws to separate what he wrote were the “bad stock and good stock, weak blood and strong blood.”

In 1952, The Immigration and Nationality Act resulted in 85 percent of immigration visas going toward people of northern and western European lineage.

To claim that our immigration laws aren’t tied to reinforcing the white majority is at best ignorance of our history and at worst a ploy to mask racism under a cloak of neutral enforcement of the law. The message isn’t that immigration itself is bad; the message is that immigration by black and brown people is bad.

But fixing our broken immigration system won’t come by demonizing immigrants, ripping apart families and detaining children. It will come by remembering that immigrants son humanos. They’re human.

Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated Julio Ricardo Varela’s title. He is co-host of the politics podcast “In The Thick” and founder of Latino Rebels, a site focused on Latino issues.

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