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Immigrant advocates say using the word 'invasion' fuels extremism

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Last week's mass shooting in Buffalo has turned attention once again to something known as the replacement theory. It's a baseless and racist conspiracy theory that powerful elites are trying to replace white Americans with nonwhites and that these elites are allowing a so-called invasion of nonwhite immigrants. That word, invasion, has been used a lot lately by some Republicans and immigration hard-liners. And as NPR's Joel Rose reports, some are resisting calls to drop it.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: If you've been following Republicans in Congress lately, you've probably heard them frame the influx of migrants at the southern border this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

RALPH NORMAN: This is an invasion of this country.

MIKE JOHNSON: We have a literal invasion of lawless masses flooding over our border from more than 160 countries.

LOUIE GOHMERT: The federal government is going to keep the states free from invasion. That hasn't happened.

ROSE: That's Republican Congressmen Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Mike Johnson of Louisiana and Louie Gohmert of Texas during hearings last month. The number of migrants apprehended at the border has climbed to some of the highest totals on record. But virtually all of those migrants are unarmed and fleeing from violence and poverty. Immigrant advocates say calling that an invasion is inflammatory, even dangerous. They say the Buffalo gunman isn't the first mass shooter to allegedly say that he was trying to kill so-called invaders. And they're calling for everyone to stop describing migrants this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VERONICA ESCOBAR: These words are powerful. And we have seen the impact of those words on my community.

ROSE: That's Democratic Congresswoman Veronica Escobar on a call with reporters last week. She represents the district in El Paso, Texas, where a white gunman opened fire in a Walmart almost three years ago, trying to turn back what he called, quote, "an invasion of Hispanics."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ESCOBAR: The pain doesn't go away, and the consequences of this hatred is far-reaching.

ROSE: Republicans across the board have denounced the shootings in El Paso and Buffalo. But they're not all rejecting the language or the ideas that motivated those shooters. A growing number of Republicans argue that the Biden administration is deliberately allowing migrants to enter the country so that they can vote for Democrats. Here's the third-ranking House Republican Elise Stefanik of New York speaking last week to talk radio host Bo Snerdley.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE BO SNERDLEY SHOW")

ELISE STEFANIK: They're actually saying that one of the reasons they want to pursue mass amnesty is for electoral and political purposes. We've seen this in New York City in the municipal elections.

ROSE: Democrats and immigrant advocates say that's a false conspiracy theory. It's true that New York City is set to allow noncitizens with legal work authorization to vote in local elections, but only citizens can vote in federal races. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has deported and expelled millions of migrants under border policies put in place by former President Trump. Still, some Republicans are doubling down and defending their use of the word invasion to describe the situation at the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEN CUCCINELLI: This is not intended to be inflammatory, but it is the legally correct terminology. The fact that it's relatively peaceful doesn't change the fact that it is still an invasion.

ROSE: Ken Cuccinelli was a top Homeland Security official during the Trump administration, where he was very involved in immigration policy. He's now at the Center for Renewing America. Cuccinelli argues that border states have the right under the Constitution to repel a, quote, "invasion of migrants," a position he reiterated on a call with reporters last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUCCINELLI: The Biden administration is inviting this invasion of the United States. And so the border states have the authority to respond and repel that invasion and return people back across their borders with Mexico.

ROSE: So far, no border state governor has taken Cuccinelli's advice to literally declare an invasion. But as a metaphor, that framing is already mainstream. And immigrant advocates worry it's just a matter of time before it leads to violence again.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.