Dems slam ads depicting national parks overrun by migrants

By Rob Hotakainen | 02/28/2024 06:31 AM EST

The National Republican Congressional Committee says the ads show parks under “extreme House Democrats.” Critics call the ads misleading and deceptive.

Residents attend a rally against the housing of migrants at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

Residents attend a rally against the housing of migrants at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn on Sept. 14, 2023, in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

House Republicans have found an ally to help them spread accusations that Democrats have allowed illegal migrants to run roughshod over national parks.

The National Republican Congressional Committee launched a digital advertising campaign in December that shows migrant housing popping up in 15 national parks, including the National Mall in Washington.

One ad, which used images created by artificial intelligence, blamed Democrats for allowing the parks to be “overrun with illegal immigrants” and featured an ominous warning: “This is the future extreme House Democrats support.”


Other ads targeted individual House Democrats, criticizing them for voting against a GOP bill last year that would have blocked the National Park Service and other federal agencies from permitting any additional migrant housing on public lands.

Leading Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee and other critics are shooting back, blasting the ads as both misleading and deceptive.

“These despicable ads are just another example of Republicans doing what they do best — deception and distraction,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the committee’s ranking member.

In a statement to E&E News, Grijalva added: “They have no meaningful policy wins or solutions to show the American people, so they’re following Trump’s lead and resorting to falsifications and absurdist fear-mongering instead. Sad.”

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Water, Wildlife and Fisheries Subcommittee, called the ads “a complete fabrication,” but he said they’re hardly a surprise.

“We knew that AI was coming to a hit piece near you, but I didn’t realize it was here and now,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “None of this is surprising — it’s the usual hyperbole on steroids.”

Pete Maysmith, senior vice president of campaigns for the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund, a national environmental advocacy group, called the AI-generated ad “xenophobic, racist and abhorrent.”

Will Reinert, the NRCC’s national press secretary, responded to the criticism by pointing to an undocumented immigrant being charged with killing a student in Georgia.

“If only extreme House Democrats put half the effort into ending their dangerous open-border policies as they have crying like little toddlers about our national park ad campaign maybe Laken Riley would still be alive,” said Reinert.

Rebekah Hoshiko, a spokesperson for the committee, declined to comment on the ads but said a New York camp is a “perfect example” of the Biden administration’s “inaction” in dealing with the immigration issue.

“This camp has already closed a beloved park to local New Yorkers, spending millions of dollars with no end in sight,” she said.

‘More crime. Less tourism. No beauty.’

Republican parks ad.
An image from a Republican campaign video showing hypothetical migrant camps at national parks. | National Republican Congressional Committee

The NRCC ads offer a flavor of what voters might expect in congressional races this year.

One showed images of migrant housing at the National Mall and in 14 national parks: Acadia, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Joshua Tree, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia, Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, Crater Lake, Glacier Bay and Olympic.

The ad closed with the text: “More crime. Less tourism. No beauty. Democrats’ national parks.”

Huffman predicted that it will be a consistent theme in the 2024 elections as Republicans try to maintain their slim majority in the House.

“They are going to bring this immigrant-bashing migrant hysteria to every congressional race if they can — that’s what this is,” he said.

Voters got an early look at the strategy in New York’s 3rd District, where voters earlier this month elected a Democratic candidate to replace former Republican Rep. George Santos following his expulsion in December for ethics violations.

In a speech after his victory, Tom Suozzi, a former three-term House member, noted that he prevailed even though Republicans had dubbed him “Sanctuary Suozzi” and sought to portray him as “the godfather of the migrant crisis.” He easily defeated Mazi Pilip, his GOP challenger.

Tom Suozzi.
New York Democrat Tom Suozzi during his victory speech this month. | Stefan Jeremiah/AP

Republicans first seized on the issue in September after the Interior Department approved a lease for an emergency housing camp at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

After a visit to New York, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), chair of the Natural Resources Committee, complained that a steady flow of illegal immigrants into the United States had already damaged the country and that NPS had worsened the situation by signing off on the new lease.

“The Biden administration is looking to spread this chaos to one of America’s greatest ideas, our national parks,” he said.

With polls showing immigration ranking as a top concern for voters, Republicans on the committee have held several hearings on the subject since last fall.

It has also become a chief focus for two subcommittee chairs: Reps. Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, who heads the Subcommittee on Public Lands, and Paul Gosar of Arizona, the leader of the Subcommittee on Investigations.

Westerman and Tiffany hosted a field hearing in Arizona earlier this month, stepping up their criticism of the National Park Service and the Interior Department and accusing them of doing little to address the growing problem caused by migrants dumping trash on public lands along the southern border.

The NRCC also aimed a handful of its ads at individual House Democrats after they voted against H.R. 5283, the “Protecting Our Communities From Failure to Secure the Border Act of 2023.”

The bill would have revoked the New York lease and barred NPS, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service from using any federal funds to provide housing for illegal migrants.

‘They got their little clips done’

When the House approved the bill Nov. 30, Grijalva dismissed the legislation as a political stunt meant only to help his GOP colleagues with their ads.

“I hope that everybody is satisfied, that they got their little clips done in terms of being strong, hard, anti-immigrant people and got those little sound bites done already,” he told them.

Westerman defended the bill, arguing that migrant housing in the parks had become “the Biden administration’s legacy for the National Park Service.”

The ads that followed criticized a long list of Democratic House members by name, including Reps. Greg Landsman, Marcy Kaptur and Emilia Sykes of Ohio; Eric Sorensen of Illinois; Hillary Scholten of Michigan; Frank Mrvan of Indiana; Pat Ryan of New York; Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania; Dina Titus of Nevada; and Mike Levin of California.

The Levin ad accused him of being “derelict in his duty to protect Southern California families from crime and fentanyl” by voting against the bill.

“Tent cities in a New York national park. Illegal immigrants in a national monument and on Southern California public lands. What’s next, Yosemite?” the ad said.

Levin’s office declined to comment, referring questions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Dan Gottlieb, the DCCC’s west regional press secretary, said the GOP ads “have one intent — sow fear and division instead of actually trying to come to the table with real solutions for border security.”

Huffman defended his colleague from the Golden State and laughed at the notion that Yosemite, one of the country’s most popular parks, would ever be overrun with migrants.

He recalled his visit to the park just last summer: “I found it overrun with Teslas. … I don’t think migrants were the problem.”