Following multiple mass shootings in the United States this month, the country turned its attention to something known as the “great replacement theory,” a racist and anti-immigrant conspiracy theory that motivated several mass murderers and has been invoked by members of the far right to justify the tightening of immigration restrictions and the increasing militarization of borders.
However, immigration advocates and researchers who study the spread of extremism online and through social media warn that using words like “invasion” to describe an increase in migration to the United States States from other countries is not only inaccurate and inflammatory, but could lead to a rise in extremist violence.
The shooter who murdered ten black people in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York on May 14, 2022 was motivated by the replacement theory, which in short is a baseless conspiracy theory claiming that there is a coordinated conspiracy – either by the Jewish people, or Democrats, depending on who you ask — to replace “mainstream” white Americans. The most common version of the conspiracy theory in the United States holds that Democrats are encouraging illegal immigration from Latin America to replace white voters (there is no evidence for this).
And while the gunman who murdered 19 schoolchildren and two adults in Uvalde, Texas this week was motivated by no clear reason that investigators discovered, immediately after the shooting, far-right commentators and even some Republican lawmakers began falsely claiming the shooter was an undocumented immigrant, despite the Texas governor’s initial statement that the shooter was a US citizen. Some of these organizations went on, almost in the same breath, to call for increased security against the “invasion” of migrants at the US-Mexico border.
Merriam-Webster defines an invasion as “an act of invasion, specifically: the incursion of an army for conquest or plunder”. As David J. Bier of the Cato Institute has pointed out, “[a]n “invasion” is not just an exaggeration. This is a completely unserious attempt to demand extraordinary military-style measures to stop completely mundane actions… But the goal of this nativist language war is nothing less than the suppression of immigrant rights.
A true invasion – an act of military force perpetrated by another sovereign nation by another – is met with violence, and the purpose and effect of using this inflammatory language to talk about illegal immigration is to justify new violence. For this reason, it is unfortunately not surprising that various nativists who repeat ideas like the great replacement theory have continued to carry out terrorist attacks. The impact of this incendiary and inaccurate rhetoric cannot be underestimated.