The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Great replacement theory’ is ignorant both broadly and narrowly

Far more Americans are born each year than are naturalized

New citizens take the oath from Honorable Chief Judge Tanya Walton Pratt during a naturalization ceremony at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 17 in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings/AP)
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The simple and obvious reason that immigrants want to come to the United States is that America is the land of opportunity. This affirmation is generally subjective, yes, but the United States is historically a magnet for the world’s population, offering freedom and the chance of economic improvement. The reasons far more people come from Central America and Mexico to the United States than from Canada or Tanzania should be obvious to anyone who has passed — or taken — a fifth-grade social studies or geography class.

But immigration from Central America and Mexico — involving, as it often does, non-wealthy non-White people — provides a good opportunity for scapegoating. White nationalists demonize immigrants as a way to build power. So did Donald Trump, who ran for president on a platform predicated on keeping immigration in check.

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As the election approached, Trump hinted that his election was the only thing standing between the Republican Party and permanent political doom because, he claimed, Hillary Clinton would grant immigrants citizenship and they would vote Democratic. It was an invocation of what is now a common, sanitized version of “great replacement theory,” the claim that elites are intentionally stoking immigration to bring a more pliable electorate to the country. It’s a claim that is common on the racist right-wing fringe. About half of Republicans also think there’s some validity to the idea.

There isn’t. There is not a deliberate effort to bring immigrants to the country to “replace” native-born White Americans. But, it’s important to note, it is also not the case that 1) immigrants are rapidly being granted citizenship, 2) immigrants are outnumbering births or 3) most new births in the United States are among immigrants.

In other words, “replacement theory” is wrong both as a conspiracy theory and in the sanitized way that the right tries to leverage it politically.

Why it’s wrong broadly

Let’s quickly dispatch with the purported plot at the heart of the conspiracy theory. It, too, can be segmented into degrees. One speculates that some secretive cabal of elites is drawing immigrants to the United States to get their votes. It’s often framed in anti-Semitic terms, in part because it’s popular among neo-Nazis. There’s no point in walking through a specific debunk since anyone who adheres to it will not be influenced by rational argument.

But then there’s the cleaned-up Tucker Carlson version. This holds that the cabal of elites are Democrats and that the — completely non-race-related, they insist! — desired outcome is to get more Democratic voters. They point to things like the increase in migration at the border and efforts by Democrats to create a path to citizenship as evidence of this plot.

As stated at the outset, though, nearly all immigrants come to the United States of their own volition, seeking things other than the ability to help Democrats win Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District seat. While President Biden’s view of immigration is certainly less hostile than Trump’s, the administration kept in place a rule, over objections from key Democratic constituencies, that allowed the government to quickly deport people who crossed the border. Vice President Harris explicitly told Central American migrants not to come to the United States.

It’s easy to wave these away as ineffective, certainly, particularly given the monthly apprehension numbers at the border. That, too, is telling, of course: If your goal is to simply “open the borders,” as Republicans like to falsely claim has occurred, detaining hundreds of thousands of people at the border seems like an odd decision.

Which brings us to the second, narrow problem with these claims: Very few people become immigrants anyway — and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Why it’s wrong narrowly

To hear Carlson foam, you’d think that each time a devious immigrant sneaks into the United States and reaches for a voter registration form, a White American in Peoria blinks into nonexistence. You might be surprised to learn, then, that the number of new Americans born each year is far, far higher than the number of immigrants who become citizens.

As you might expect, the federal government tracks this data. In 2020, 625,400 people were naturalized as U.S. citizens. (Of those newly naturalized immigrants, about 1 in 8 were from Mexico.) That’s compared with 3.6 million babies born in the country — native-born Americans all. That’s a ratio of 5.8 native-born babies to 1 new American from naturalization. If we look only at those of voting age (since you must be both a citizen and 18 to vote in federal elections), the gap is wider: In 2020, about 4.2 million U.S. residents turned 18.

Sometimes, the argument is made that the real risk of “replacement” comes from the children of immigrants — children who are, of course, definitionally native-born Americans. In 2020, about 1 in 5 children born in the United States were born to foreign-born mothers. For every such child, in other words, the country added 4.6 children of native-born American mothers.

The Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes how and why conservatives continued to embrace the racist “great replacement” theory, even after it was linked to mass shootings. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

When Ohio Republican Senate nominee J.D. Vance told Carlson in March that Democrats were hoping to win the 2022 election by replacing American voters, he was making a particularly ridiculous claim. For one thing, Ohio is not one of the top 10 states where newly naturalized people live. But, for another, it simply doesn’t work that quickly.

In 2020, the government’s data suggest that newly naturalized citizens had been lawful permanent residents for more than seven years before gaining that status. Meaning that they had gotten their green cards in 2013 and only in 2020 had been able to become citizens.

David Leopold, an immigration attorney who also served on the Biden-Harris transition team, pointed out in a phone call that you have to wait at least five years in most cases once you get the green card — and that getting the green card can itself take years. Immigrants from India, he said, were “backlogged 10 years, 12 years” just to reach the point at which they’re eligible for green cards.

“The argument that immigration represents an ‘invasion’ is as preposterous as it is evil,” Leopold said. “Preposterous because the path to citizenship in the U.S. takes years, even under the best of circumstances. And that’s not counting the years — in some cases decades — many immigrants, particularly immigrants of color, must wait for their green cards due to green card quotas.”

The argument made by Trump in 2016 and by other Republicans at other points is that the Democrats hope to cut this Gordian knot by simply granting immigrants citizenship status. While there have been debates on the left about creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, that is more a function of making such immigrants eligible for citizenship at all which, at this point, they are not. To become a citizen, you must have entered the country legally. Regardless, it’s clear that no such legislation is going to be passed by Congress anytime soon, particularly given the Republican ability to block legislation in the Senate.

We can go one step further. Even if there were some magical bestowing of citizenship on newly arrived immigrants, this theory about White voters being “replaced” depends on those immigrants voting. I’m not clear how the conspiracy theory speculates that the cabal of elites will force those newcomers to cast ballots, but I can say, thanks to Census Bureau data, that many naturalized citizens don’t bother voting. In 2020, an estimated 67 percent of native-born Americans voted in the presidential election. Only 61 percent of naturalized citizens did. Among immigrants from Latin America and Mexico, the percentage was lower: 57 percent.

It’s interesting that this idea that Democrats are actively trying to bring non-White immigrants to the country to get them to cast Democratic votes has currency alongside rampant assumptions that the 2020 election was stolen. Is the idea that Democrats are using cheating as a stopgap until the “replacement” is final? Or is it that they simply think suffering years of political attacks over the number of apprehensions at the border is easier than continuing to rig the election however they’re purported to have rigged the election?

Of course, neither of those is the idea. The idea, instead, is that both Democrats and immigrants are seen as untrustworthy or dangerous by a subset of Americans and building conspiracy theories that tie them together offers political rewards. However obviously nonsensical those theories might be.