By Sabrina Siddiqui | The Guardian
The outline of a child skips across the sidewalk as the narrator of a political ad targeting Matt Cartwright, a Democratic congressman in Pennsylvania, ominously declares: “A young girl, raped by an illegal given sanctuary in Philadelphia.”
“She was five years old. Her life will never be the same,” the voice concludes.
In another spot, aimed at Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat from Arizona, a white woman locks the doors and windows of her home as police lights flicker outside. “They talk about solving illegal immigration, but nothing happens,” she opines. “We who live here are forgotten.”
Other attack ads flash images of tattooed gang members behind prison bars while accusing Democratic incumbents of failing to secure America’s borders.
The stark imagery embodies much of the Republican messaging on immigration ahead of the November midterm elections. Donald Trump, while stumping for Republican candidates across the country, has railed against illegal immigration and sounded the alarm over MS-13, a transnational criminal organization that represents less than 1% of gangs in the United States.
Trump has also touted the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agency, which is tasked with apprehending, detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants, as the last line of defense between Americans and violent criminals. That seems a deliberate strategy, talking up the agency’s often controversial actions as a way of stirring up a Republican base fearful of immigration.
Many Republicans have refashioned themselves in the president’s mold, echoing the sharp rhetoric that makes little distinction between bad actors and the majority of undocumented immigrants already in the country or seeking refuge at its borders.
“I don’t know if the Republican party at the national level has one message on immigration,” said Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “But the message is not one that is constructive or hopeful in the local elections.”
A review of nearly five dozen Republican-backed TV ads revealed a messaging strategy rooted in painting a dark portrait of immigrants, with a fixation on violence and crime. The threat of MS-13 and so-called “sanctuary cities” are frequent themes, juxtaposed with Republican candidates vowing to support Trump’s promised wall along the US-Mexico border.
Trump has sought to define the narrative by seizing on a movement within some progressive circles to abolish Ice, which sits within the Department of Homeland Security.
Only a handful of Democrats endorse doing away with Ice entirely, while others suggest reforming the agency. Trump, in turn, has said at campaign rallies that Republicans “stand proudly” with Ice, while warning of rampant crime if Democrats were able to exercise their immigration agenda.
“The Democrats wanna get rid of Ice … MS-13 doesn’t like Ice, and that’s why I like Ice,” Trump told supporters at a rally in Kansas last week. Democrats, he added, backed policies “that release violent predators and bloodthirsty killers, like MS-13, into our communities”.
The White House has even held official events to honor Ice, which under Trump’s stewardship has escalated apprehensions of undocumented immigrants who either lack a criminal conviction or committed low-level offenses.
The president’s tactics are reminiscent of the nativist tone forged during his 2016 presidential campaign, which he launched by declaring most immigrants crossing the US border from Mexico were “rapists” and “killers”.
But whereas candidate Trump’s incendiary rhetoric was rebuked by most Republican lawmakers, the party has increasingly rallied behind the politics of fear – as part of a bid to mobilize a conservative base that remains overwhelmingly behind the president.
“We used to say the Republican party was divided between a pro-immigrant wing and an anti-immigrant wing. That’s no longer the case,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the progressive immigration group America’s Voice, which recently launched an anti-immigrant ad tracker.