• Reuters



Joseph Tanfani, Jason Lange and Letitia Stein

The commercial opens with an appeal to fear: a hoodie-wearing man prowling an alley, knife in hand. His face remains hidden but the ad makes it clear: He is an illegal immigrant.

“We need tough immigration enforcement to keep dangerous criminals out,” says the ad, by a national conservative political group. It is part of an effort to help Indiana Republican Mike Braun oust a Democratic incumbent and capture a U.S. Senate seat in November’s elections.

As they try to hang on to control of Congress, Republican candidates are following the lead of President Donald Trump and turning to rhetoric about immigrants as a tactic to motivate voters.

The trend is especially visible on Twitter. Congressional Republicans seeking re-election have dramatically increased the number of tweets they post about immigration since Trump’s election, a Reuters/Ipsos analysis shows. Immigration messaging has surged across the spectrum of Republican-held districts: swing seats and reliably Republican ones, in places with immigrant populations both large and small.

The shift also shows up in campaign ads. Republicans have poured millions of dollars into ads that depict illegal immigrants as criminals and vow support for Trump’s proposed wall at the Mexican border.

This year, 20 percent of pro-Republican ads in congressional races have cited immigration, according to an analysis of broadcast advertising data through Oct. 15. That is up from 8 percent in the same period of the 2014 congressional elections and 5 percent in the 2010 races. The analysis was conducted for Reuters by Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks political ads.

Spending on Republican ads that mention immigration has more than doubled to $62.4 million this year from the 2014 elections and has quadrupled since the 2010 races.

Immigration ad spending has also surged in state-level races. (Kantar Media/CMAG estimated this month that total political ad spending for broadcast television would rise to $2.7 billion this year from $2.1 billion in 2014.)

In February, as Braun vied for the party’s nomination for the Indiana Senate seat, he ran a commercial highlighting a deadly highway crash involving a drunk driver who was in the country illegally. “There are lives at stake,” Braun said in the ad.

In Indiana, only about 5 percent of residents are immigrants, compared with 13.6 percent in the United States as a whole. But in the last two months, nearly a third of television ads sponsored or partially sponsored by Braun have mentioned immigration, said Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, a nonpartisan group tracking televised political advertising. Trump won Indiana by nearly 20 points in the 2016 election.

A number of Republican ads link illegal immigrants to crime, but statistics paint a more nuanced picture. While people in the United States illegally have in some instances committed high-profile crimes, multiple studies — including ones from conservative groups like the Cato Institute — have found that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans.

Trump won the White House on a promise to crack down on illegal immigrants. He has tried to end a program that gave protection for illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. He has ordered more aggressive enforcement and longer detention. One policy, to separate children from their parents at the border, set off an uproar, and the president ended the policy in June.

Trump’s administration has also limited legal immigration, imposing more restrictions on work visas and sharply cutting the number of refugees allowed into the United States.

A thousands-strong group of immigrants now heading north toward the United States from Central America has inflamed the debate over illegal immigration just days before Americans head to the polls. The caravan has riled up Trump, who is intensifying his efforts to frame the Nov. 6 elections around the threat he says illegal immigrants pose to Americans’ safety.

A dramatic evolution

The anti-immigration rhetoric, ads and campaign events, combined with the party’s embrace of Trump’s immigration crackdown, represent a dramatic evolution of Republicanism under Trump. Anti-immigration themes now dominate a party that for decades was defined by fiscal, social and national security conservatism.

As recently as 2013, when the Senate passed an immigration bill with bipartisan support, a significant portion of the Republican Party backed immigration reform — including a path to citizenship for some of the 12 million people living in the United States illegally.

But those voices have been mostly silenced since the rise of Trump, drowned out by his statements decrying “amnesty for illegals” and “chain migration,” his term for the long-standing U.S. policy that allows legal immigrants to bring family members into the country.

Immigration is now seen as the top issue for likely Republican voters, especially among those who are older and without a college degree, Reuters/Ipsos polling shows. By contrast, Democrats are far more focused on health care, the polls show.

‘Greatest threats’

The analysis of Twitter data shows that the number of Republican lawmakers tweeting about immigration has risen sharply since Trump’s election.

Across 156 official Twitter accounts of Republican lawmakers and tens of thousands of tweets, the analysis identified 1,409 posts in the first nine months of 2018 that included immigration-related terms and phrases such as “immigrant,” “build the wall” or “border.” That is a nearly 80 percent increase from 795 posts in the same months of 2017 and more than triple the number from the same period in 2016.

The tweets ranged in tone. Some linked immigrants to threats of violence against Americans, like Texas Rep. Randy Weber’s Jan. 30 tweet: “President says fix the border so gangs can’t get in & Americans won’t be murdered.”

Reuters/Ipsos polling indicates that Republican lawmakers are largely preaching to the converted: 77 percent of Republican likely voters in a September survey supported policies to deport more illegal immigrants. An equal number backed building a wall on the southern border.

Across the 156 Republican Twitter accounts, Reuters identified only 37 tweets between 2016 and 2018 unambiguously critical of Trump’s immigration policies — almost all criticizing the separation of families at the border. The critical tweets came from 20 lawmakers who had also posted other tweets supporting strengthening border security or cracking down on illegal immigration.

Some conservatives, while backing stringent curbs on immigration, say the harsh tone has potentially far-reaching consequences — adding to political polarization, spawning harsher enforcement and potentially limiting the party’s appeal to America’s growing minority population.

“Trump has remade the Republican Party into a blood-and-soil national political party that is hostile to immigration,” said Steve Schmidt, a former Republican political consultant. He left the party in June in part because of the policy of separating mothers and children at the southern border. Schmidt said the country’s growing Hispanic population ultimately will render the immigration issue “a death knell for the Republican Party.”

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement that Trump supports an immigration system based on the merit of the applicants, which “has nothing to do with race.”

While Trump has thrust immigration to the center of the party’s identity, the roots of this transformation began years ago. In Indiana, the state’s Republicans have made a journey that mirrors that of the national party.

In 2006, Republican legislators pushed a plan in the state legislature that would deny public health services to immigrants who had entered the country illegally. Mike Murphy, a Republican representative from Indianapolis, rose to speak in the glass-domed statehouse.

Murphy had long worked to bring more Latinos into the party. Since many of the bill’s backers were conservative Christians, Murphy quoted verses from the Gospel of Matthew about charity to outcasts and strangers. “I just turned it against them — how do you guys profess to be Christians?” Murphy said. The bill was defeated overwhelmingly.

Enter Pence

That year, Mike Pence, a congressman from Indiana, was considered a rising conservative star. He waded in with a plan to allow illegal immigrants a path to achieve legal status — though they would have to leave the country first. He called immigration reform “a test of the character of the conservative movement.”

He was pilloried by hardliners, who labeled the plan a “stealth amnesty.” The bill went nowhere.

As the far-right tea party movement rose in the Republican Party in 2010, resentment toward immigration increased throughout the state. When a new immigration-related bill came before Indiana lawmakers in 2011, they passed it, granting police the authority to detain people suspected of being illegal immigrants. A federal judge later threw out much of the law.

In 2015, Pence, then Indiana’s governor, signed an order that aimed to block Syrian refugees from coming to Indiana, a harbinger of Trump’s later ban on immigration from mostly Muslim countries. Pence, now Trump’s vice president, saw his order overturned by a federal appeals judge.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump returned frequently to Indiana. At nearly every rally, he hit hard at illegal immigration, reprising crimes committed by people in America illegally. “Raped, sodomized and killed,” he said at a rally in South Bend on May 2, 2016. “This is all over the country. We’re not taking it any more.”

Trump’s runaway win in Indiana’s presidential nominating contest a day later sealed his conquest of a crowded Republican field. Since the rise of Trump, Murphy said, it has become nearly impossible to have a civil debate about immigration. “Donald Trump made it OK to hate,” said Murphy, who is still a Republican but no longer in the state legislature.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.