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The border crisis is helping to mainstream a dangerous conspiracy theory

Participants in the "Take Our Border Back" convoy arrive at a ranch near Quemado, Texas on Feb. 2.
Sergio Flores
AFP via Getty Images
Participants in the "Take Our Border Back" convoy arrive at a ranch near Quemado, Texas on Feb. 2.

As the election year gets underway, a conspiratorial narrative typically circulated by fringe movements has come to dominate mainstream Republican discourse on immigration, extremism researchers warn. Specifically, they say that rhetoric used by Republican officeholders about the surge of migrants at the border with Mexico increasingly echoes the "Great Replacement" conspiracy theory that has inspired violence in the past and could do so again in the future.

"This is the idea that directly influenced the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooter, the El Paso Walmart shooter, the Buffalo supermarket shooter," said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, which tracks domestic and transnational far-right movements. "It is the font of terrorism around the world."

The Great Replacement narrative, rooted in white nationalism, posits without basis that a powerful cabal of elites are deliberately replacing white Americans with immigrants. In the last several years, the narrative has evolved into versions that appeal to different audiences. An antisemitic version of it, which surfaced during recent truck convoys focused on the border crisis, accuses Jews and Jewish organizationsof engineering the surge of asylum seekers.

Another version, voiced by some high-ranking GOP officials, asserts that Democrats are intentionally bringing in immigrants to dilute the strength of Republican voters. This narrative has been articulated by now-GOP House Speaker Mike Johnson, including at a House Judiciary Committee hearing prior to his elevation to party leadership.

"If you're scratching your head, you've seen the video, you see droves of people, 2.4 million people coming over the border illegally, the president allowing it, the Democrats in charge of Congress are allowing it," he said in 2022. "The deal is they're going to turn them into voters."

Extremism experts say that the potency of the border issue as a rallying cry to a broad spectrum of the right is evidenced by who attended the recent truck convoys in Texas, California and Arizona.

"It's essentially serving as a lightning rod to gather all these extreme fringe elements down to the border," said Freddy Cruz, program manager for the Western States Center, which monitors anti-democratic movements. "It's having an impact, as we're seeing with neo-Nazi groups, militias, conspiracy theorists, all joining together to rally behind this issue of immigration."

Cruz said this was a marked shift from much of the period following the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot. Following the wave of arrests tied to that event, extremist groups have largely stayed away from in-person gatherings, often labeling attempts to gather rightwing activists "false flag" operations. But Cruz said the border gatherings lit up social media spaces frequented by far-right actors, and drew in-person appearances from Proud Boys, neo-fascist fight clubs and border vigilantes, some of whom had been inactive for years.

Within extremist circles, the desire to capitalize on the migrant surge has been churning for months. In a Telegram channel for the New England neo-Nazi group NSC-131, the group's leader has urged members to step up their engagement in physical "confrontations" around this issue.

"We're all, you know, white nationalists against replacement and stuff like that," said group leader Christopher Hood on the channel. "But, you know, this is like the most relevant issue that we could oppose."

That group faces civil charges in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for their activities targeting migrants and the LGBTQ community.

Beirich said she worries that the energy that the issue has generated on the right will ultimately mean that the dehumanizing narratives will go unchecked.

"We used to see figures in the Republican Party reject any kind of extremism in past eras, whether it was somebody who was connected to, let's say, neo-Nazis or white nationalists. They'd be thrown out of the party," she said. "That just doesn't happen anymore."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.