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Pro-Trump influencers fire up fears of migrant ‘invasion’

REUTERS/TED HESSON/FILE PHOTO
                                YouTube influencers Nick Shirley and Brandon Buckingham stage a protest with day laborers in front of the White House in Washington, on May 15.
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REUTERS/TED HESSON/FILE PHOTO

YouTube influencers Nick Shirley and Brandon Buckingham stage a protest with day laborers in front of the White House in Washington, on May 15.

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK >> One late afternoon in mid-May, a half dozen Hispanic day laborers were paid $20 each to parade in front of the White House on camera, holding signs with slogans like “I Love Biden” and “I Need Work Permit for My Family.”

The stunt was orchestrated by Nick Shirley, a pro-Trump online influencer who often asks migrants on camera if they support Democratic President Joe Biden or think he made it easier for them to come to the U.S.

“We want to take you to the White House,” Shirley told the men he recruited at a Home Depot parking lot, where day laborers typically wait for jobs, in a video later posted to YouTube. “What (Biden) did for migrants is very kind, right? Letting everyone come in? So we are going to show him and say thank you.”

Shirley, a 22-year-old with more than 318,000 followers on social media, is among a new class of influencers supportive of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump who are helping shape the immigration debate as the U.S. election campaign heats up.

Their self-shot dispatches from American cities and the southern border with Mexico portray migrants in the country illegally as dangerous and burdensome, and part of a plan to grow the ranks of Democratic voters.

Biden took office in 2021 vowing to reverse many of Trump’s restrictive border policies, but he has struggled with record numbers of migrants caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on his watch.

While it is difficult to quantify the influencers’ impact on the debate, immigration is a top election issue for voters and a central plank of Trump’s campaign to reclaim the presidency in November. About three-quarters of Republicans in a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in May said migrants in the U.S. illegally “are a danger to public safety.” Independents, who could decide the next occupant of the Oval Office, were split on the issue.

While Shirley started by making prank videos as a high schooler in Utah and only recently began focusing on illegal immigration, other pro-Trump influencers are more established and explicitly partisan.

One of the most prominent is Ben Bergquam, a self-described opinion journalist who hosts the TV show “Law and Border” on the Real America’s Voice digital media platform and appears regularly on a show hosted by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

Bergquam often links migrants to crime – another dominant theme of Trump’s campaign, even though many academics who study the issue say there is no evidence to show immigrants commit crimes at higher rates than native-born Americans.

A Reuters reporter joined Bergquam during an April visit to New York, where he approached a group of men standing outside the Row NYC, a 1,331-room hotel in Midtown Manhattan now used as a shelter for migrants. He was hauling a tripod and a video camera, with a black “Trump 2024” cap clipped to his belt.

He smiled and laughed with several of the migrants and swapped stories with one Venezuelan man about their respective trips to the Darien Gap, the jungle that blankets the Colombia-Panama border and a major route for migrants heading to America.

Speaking into his camera moments before, though, the 41-year-old had struck a less amicable tone, describing migrants arriving in the U.S. illegally as an “invasion” and saying they were driving a surge in violence.

Outside a second migrant shelter later that day, Bergquam criticized Biden for allowing in migrants unable to sustain themselves, including mothers with young children, and “young thugs out in the street.”

“You basically took the ills of the world, put them into a blender and turn the blender on in a city that’s already been crime-ridden,” he told viewers.

“I don’t blame the people that are coming. But I blame the people that are inviting them.”

Bergquam’s violence claim is not supported by crime data for New York City, which has received more than 202,000 migrants since the Republican-led state of Texas began busing them to Democratic-led cities from the southern border in 2022.

While arrests for serious crimes across the city rose in 2022, they remained steady in 2023 and have fallen slightly in 2024, according to New York City Police Department statistics.

Asked about the lack of evidence of a surge in violence, Arkansas-based Bergquam said that migrant crimes are being underreported, blaming the NYPD’s policy of not asking criminal suspects or victims about their immigration status. He said that every crime committed by an immigrant in the U.S. illegally could be prevented with stricter policies.

Trump campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt said Democratic-run cities purposefully do not document when crimes are committed by migrants in the U.S. illegally to conceal the problem and that Trump plans to launch the biggest deportation effort in U.S. history.

Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz said that Americans want solutions for the country’s “broken immigration system” but that Trump and his political allies want “chaos and partisan politics.”

FOX NEWS APPEARANCES

Reuters identified at least six influencers focused on immigration-related videos, boasting collectively over 1.4 million social media followers. Their videos are posted on platforms like YouTube, X, TikTok, Facebook and Rumble.

The videos are frequently shared, amplifying their message. In a February video from Denver, Shirley asked migrants if they supported Biden and several said they did. Shirley posted about it on X, saying “Confirmed: Migrants for Biden 2024.” Elon Musk, X’s owner who has 182 million followers, responded to a post highlighting Shirley’s report with an exclamation mark.

Trump and fellow Republicans have alleged that large numbers of noncitizens vote in federal elections and have pushed to pass legislation banning the practice even though it is already illegal and rare.

Right-leaning outlets such as Fox News, the most-watched U.S. cable news network, have featured some of the influencers’ clips and aired interviews with at least three of them.

Shirley told Reuters his content appeals to people who don’t normally watch TV news and appreciate his unpolished style.

“People my age are like, ‘I had no idea this was even happening’,” he said, referring to his videos focused on migrants arriving in U.S. cities and at the border.

He said he did not think migrants living in the U.S. illegally would try to vote in November but that “if they are given the opportunity to vote, they’re going to vote for Biden, because he’s the reason they’re here.”

Asked about whether he exploited people in videos like the White House stunt, he added: “I wanted to give the migrants an opportunity to voice their opinions.”

OBJECTIVE: GET TRUMP RE-ELECTED

Bergquam has been covering the border for years and has gained influence and credibility among prominent Trump backers. He and his media company, Frontline America, command almost 540,000 followers on social media.

He told Reuters that he is motivated by protecting America. “Ultimately, my objective is to get President Trump re-elected and save this country,” he said.

Among the migrants Bergquam spoke with outside a New York City shelter in April was Carolina Sinisterra, a Colombian woman selling empanadas on the sidewalk.

Sinisterra, 40, told Reuters she had fled her home in the city of Medellin last year with her 12-year-old son after she was threatened for supporting an opposition political party.

She is living in the U.S. illegally while pursuing her asylum case and works as a waitress in a Colombian restaurant in Queens.

“I feel immensely grateful to be able to be here,” she said.

Alex Scott, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in the depiction of migrants in the media, said Bergquam and the other influencers appeal to people who distrust mainstream media because they appear to be independent truth tellers without any commercial interests swaying them.

However, they over-simplify illegal immigration in a way that presents migrants as a danger, he said. “One of the easiest ways to stoke fear in the heart of America is to say there’s somebody coming to take something that’s yours.”

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