In the aftermath of the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart, in which the accused gunman allegedly targeted Hispanics, there’s been a great deal of focus on a short screed he appears to have posted online shortly before opening fire. In that document, the author claims that immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border is an “invasion” and that white American culture is at risk of being “replaced.”
In short order, observers noted that the rhetoric echoed President Trump’s own descriptions of the purported dangers of immigration. Trump has repeatedly spoken about immigrant invaders and has, on several occasions, warned Republicans that they were at risk of being swamped by immigrants coming into the United States to vote Democratic — even if they have to vote illegally. (There’s no evidence that this has happened more than a few times in recent years.)
The focus on the language used in that document, though, obscures the more important factor driving immigration politics in the United States: the mainstream rhetoric used to disparage or undercut immigration.
On Monday, the Trump administration announced plans to restrict access to green cards for immigrants by adding restrictions focusing on ensuring that new arrivals could immediately begin working and not need to use government resources. In an interview on NPR, the administration’s immigration chief, Ken Cuccinelli, offered a reworking of the poem that sits at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
It’s this sort of rhetoric that’s driving the administration’s policies and Republican attitudes toward immigration — and is mirrored by conservative media.
We noted on Monday that the effort to add new restrictions on immigration centered on the use of public-support systems was central to how many in the tea party viewed the issue of immigration. While Trump’s entry into national Republican politics is generally pegged to his aborted 2012 presidential run and his embrace of the false claim that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, Trump was also a supporter of the tea party movement.
The period from 2010 to 2014 was formative for Trump’s conservative politics (as it was for many Americans). From 2011 until he launched his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump had a weekly gig on Fox News’s “Fox and Friends,” contributing his thoughts on a number of issues in line with the show’s politics. He was tracking more conservative online outlets such as Breitbart, occasionally sharing stories published there. In 2013, he spoke with Breitbart’s Matt Boyle (who later became a publicly visible supporter of Trump’s), arguing that Republicans should oppose an immigration reform proposal, lest future Democrats flood across the border — rhetoric used in the screed published before the El Paso shooting.
In 2014, violence in Central America prompted a surge in the number of children arriving at the border seeking entry to the United States. Immigration as an issue quickly dominated Fox News, conservative outlets such as Breitbart and conservative radio. Former Virginia congressman Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader, lost a Republican primary that June in part because of a relentless focus by conservative media on his approach to immigration, which was perceived as overly generous.
This focus on immigration in the conservative media certainly contributed to Trump’s focus on the issue during his campaign launch in June 2015. Analysis of closed-captioning data from the major cable news networks and PBS compiled by the GDELT Project shows that Fox News talked about immigration in the context of illegality more than 2,000 times in 2014. In the first half of 2015, that plunged to about 500 — but after Trump jumped into the race and, more specifically, after blowback against his anti-immigration rhetoric elevated his national profile, the network talked about illegal immigration or undocumented immigrants nearly 1,800 times in the second half of the year.
Trump’s entry into the race similarly spurred more discussion of illegal immigration on the other networks, too.
Immigration has been a constant foil for Trump during his presidency, echoed and amplified on Fox News in particular. As the 2018 midterm approached, Trump highlighted caravans of immigrants approaching the border as an imminent threat, sending troops to border states to put up concertina wire. Fox News obliged, showing footage from the border and implying that the group was rife with criminals and potential terrorists. After the midterms, Trump was prepared to sign a budget deal until hard-liners in conservative media pressured him to try to get funding for a wall on the border. The longest government shutdown in history ensued, with Trump eventually conceding defeat.
This has had an effect. Shortly after the administration announced the shift in immigration policy discussed by Cuccinelli, the Pew Research Center released new polling about views of immigrants in the United States. Republicans are consistently more likely to hold skeptical views of immigrants in the country without authorization than are Americans overall: They’re more likely to think immigrants are taking American jobs (which Trump and his administration have claimed), are not as hard-working or honest and are more likely to commit crimes (which Trump has claimed repeatedly). There’s no evidence that undocumented immigrants take jobs from native-born citizens, and immigrants to the United States commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans.
Notice what’s happened during Trump’s presidency. When Pew asked in August 2016 — months into Trump’s political rhetoric — Republicans were 37 percentage points more likely to say that immigrants were hard-working than not and 10 points more likely to say they weren’t more prone to committing crime.
Now? Republicans are 12 percentage points more likely to say that immigrants are hard-working, a 25-point swing. Republicans are now more likely to say that immigrants commit crime at higher rates than citizens than to say that they don’t.
We can’t run an experiment to see what those numbers would look like without Trump in the White House. Would Fox News have been as fervent on the subject? Would some other Republican have made it as significant a priority?
One thing is clear. We’ve spent more than a week debating the extent to which Trump’s rhetoric influenced the El Paso shooter. There’s little question, though, that his rhetoric has shifted how Republicans broadly view immigrants to the United States leading to an administration official literally suggesting that the wording on the Statue of Liberty was too generous to those seeking to come to the United States.
That administration official, Cuccinelli, has ancestors who came to the United States from Italy and Ireland, like those of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway. Those two groups were targets of anti-immigrant rhetoric more than a century ago, seen as dangerous infiltrators aiming to steal American jobs.