Columnist Razvan Sibii: Undocumented immigrants are not ‘invading’ the U.S.

  • Razvan Sibii FILE PHOTO

Published: 12/19/2022 4:39:24 PM
Modified: 12/19/2022 4:36:37 PM

As the Biden administration is preparing to confront yet another crisis at the southern border (, the anti-immigrant rhetoric is predictably ratcheting up. Once again, talk of “invasion” is on the lips of not just Fox News anchors but also reasonable, generally apolitical people who are worried that America is being taken over by foreigners who do not share our values.

That kind of talk has a history, and it follows a pattern that we would be wise to recognize and counteract, before it provokes even more acts of senseless violence than it already has. The fear that “liberal elites” are plotting, or at least encouraging, the “replacing” of “regular Americans” with Black and brown people through immigration and refugee resettlement is steeped in a white supremacist vision of the world that, in the age of Trump, is being horrifyingly normalized.

In 1973, a French travel writer, Jean Raspail, published a dystopian novel called “The Camp of the Saints.” The title is a reference to the Bible’s account of the Apocalypse, which involves Satan and his armies attacking the faithful that make up “the camp of the saints.” In Raspail’s account, the “Western World” is being threatened by a “Third World” on the move that will simply not stop until it has occupied every economically developed “white man’s country” and has systematically destroyed it through wanton violence, depravity and a complete inability to produce anything useful. The actual plot involves a flotilla of ships carrying 800,000 desperate Indians that is approaching the south of France, as the “liberal establishment” welcomes it and the authorities lack the backbone to do “what needs to be done” to interdict it and stave off the fall of “Western civilization.”

“The Camp of the Saints” is “a largely influential book among the anti-immigrant, White nationalist and hard-right figures,” Caleb Kieffer, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. “Despite being steeped in vile racist tropes, it’s still viewed by many as a cautionary and prophetic tale as it reinforces their fears of immigration from non-white countries and the changing demographics in the United States, and is used to justify pushing back against a multiracial and multicultural society.”

Unsurprisingly, far-right European politicians, such as France’s Le Pen and Hungary’s Orbán, have embraced Raspail’s “prophetic tale.” But its appeal has long ago crossed the Atlantic, too. Conservative luminary William F. Buckley Jr. admired the novel, and John Tanton, whom Kieffer of the SPLC describes as “the godfather of the modern-day anti-immigrant movement” in America, was inspired by it as he set about creating a network of organizations that to this day advocate for restricting immigration. More recently, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, both of whom were members of former President Trump’s “brain trust,” have gushed about Raspail’s visionary account, and conservative commentators such as Tucker Carlson have been busy warning of an impending “Great Replacement” — a direct descendant of Raspail’s ideas. According to a recent UMass Amherst poll, one third of Americans believe in the “Great Replacement” theory.

The idea that the “white race” is being replaced by non-whites, which will spell the end of civilization, is, of course, wrong on many levels. For starters, as all racist ideologies do, it assumes the centrality, immutability and purity of race in all human affairs. The past and present existence of mixed-race individuals is erased, along with much of European colonialism and its attending horrors. The historical shiftiness of racial categories is thoroughly ignored, despite miles of scholarly literature on such topics as “How the Irish/Italians/Jews became white.”

But the most pernicious assumption underlying not just “Camp of the Saints”-style fictional dystopia but also countless holiday-dinner family debates with your “independent-thinking” brother/uncle is that the “other” is lazy and violent and wants to take that which “we” have made through creative genius, toil and self-denial. It seems that no amount of academic studies that prove that immigrants (documented and undocumented) are a net economic gain to society, no amount of statistics that show that immigrants (documented and undocumented) commit fewer crimes than natives, and no amount of personal interactions with utterly peaceful and hard-working immigrants (documented and undocumented) will convince some folks that they are in absolutely no danger of being skewered by, in Raspail’s words, “a global Spartacus.” When you only look through the lens of “invasion,” instead of tired Guatemalan families looking for safety and a measure of prosperity you see savage warriors armed to the teeth and bent on conquest.

If the doomsday narrative of “The Camp of the Saints” only appealed to some young men desperately looking for belonging, affirmation and a chance to feel like a virile hero it would be bad enough (considering how many recent mass shooters have been animated by “Great Replacement” fantasies). But these “clash of civilizations” accounts also smuggle into public consciousness the metaphor of the “invasion” — and that has dire consequences, for what are you supposed to do when someone “invades” you? This is how you get otherwise reasonable, “moderate” people to buy into, or at least acquiesce to, violent policies such as slavery, genocide, eugenics, the separation of children from their parents, and mass incarceration.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at

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