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Republicans blaming Covid on immigrants threatens public health and our democracy

Republican leaders are playing a dangerous game that mainstreams and normalizes extremist ideas.
Photo illustration: A cut out of an elephant walking on one side of a fence. Covid spores are floating on the other side.
The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was a clear illustration of the serious threat that propaganda and disinformation pose to our democracy.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

A new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation reveals that over half of Republicans (55 percent) believe immigrants and tourists are responsible for current pandemic conditions in the U.S., a much larger proportion than the 32 percent of Republicans who attribute high infection rates to the unvaccinated or to the 28 percent who cite the public’s failure to wear masks or maintain social distancing. That pervasive belief that immigrants are to blame for America’s public health crisis suggests that classic scapegoating tactics have led to a dangerous mainstreaming of extremism.

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Classic scapegoating tactics have led to a dangerous mainstreaming of extremism.

There is no evidence that migrants are responsible for the surge in Covid-19 infections in the U.S. or even at the southern border. Across the U.S., Covid outbreaks have consistently been worse in regions and communities with no mask mandates or with low vaccination rates. The delta variant — along with three other Covid-19 variants monitored by public health officials — circulated in the United States before it was detected in Central America.

These facts haven’t stopped Republican leaders and conservative commentators from linking reports of migrants at the southern border to the spread of Covid-19. In March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott accused the Biden administration of “releasing immigrants in South Texas that have been exposing Texans to Covid.” In August, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed that “no elected official is doing more to enable the transmission of Covid in America than Joe Biden with his open borders policies.” That same month, former President Donald Trump issued a statement warning that thousands of Covid-positive migrants had “passed through” Texas — without noting that migrants who test positive are quarantined.

Blaming immigrants for the spread of Covid-19 is a lazy but effective tactic that packs a double punch of disinformation. It falsely places the blame for Covid’s spread on immigrants rather than where it belongs: on a lack of adherence to evidence-based preventative practices such as vaccinations and masks. At the same time, it stokes resistance to perceived liberal immigration policies by focusing on the threat of disease, infestation and infection, by voicing dehumanizing ideas about purity and contamination and by suggesting that immigrants pose an existential threat to Americans.

This is a dangerous game that mainstreams and normalizes extremist ideas. Blaming immigrants for spreading contagious disease is a popular far-right extremist tactic that has been used for generations to both exploit and stoke xenophobic and nativist sentiments and has been used throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

When such propaganda is spread not only on fringe internet platforms, but also by elected officials whom residents trust as the source of their facts and information, it becomes even more dangerous. Such hateful speech can also incite violence. People don’t commit or condone violence against out-groups spontaneously, as Harvard’s Dangerous Speech project explains: They must first “be taught to see other people as pests, vermin, aliens, or threats.”

Blaming immigrants is a strategic frame that intertwines anti-elite, pro-nationalist and anti-immigrant discourse all at once. Liberal elites and their lenient immigration laws become the real bogeyman, and those laws must be countered with restrictive immigration policies that will protect people here from the dangerous and destructive force of immigration.

Such hateful speech can incite violence.

We should all be concerned about how anti-immigrant sentiment is being used to deflect attention away from ineffective state and regional public health policies, to discourage people from accepting the science about masks and vaccines and to encourage them to blame others for Covid’s spread. In linking immigration with the spread of Covid-19, Republicans seek to garner support for stricter immigration laws and persuade voters that the Biden administration is ineffective and dangerous to their health and safety.

But these tactics, which encourage the public to see immigrants as threatening, also lay the groundwork for extremist groups to advocate for violent solutions to address that threat — as we have already seen in far-right terrorist attacks across the country and around the globe.

The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was a clear illustration of the serious threat that propaganda and disinformation pose to our democracy. With a clear majority of Republicans now believing false claims about immigrants’ role in spreading Covid — while simultaneously rejecting public health evidence that would reduce their chances of getting sick — it is equally clear that the danger from propaganda is not just to our democracy itself, but to the health and well-being of the people living in it.