TIJUANA, Mexico—As President Joe Biden comes under fire from all sides over an emerging migrant crisis at the southern border, two Mexican social media influencers are regularly visiting a camp here to rile up their U.S.-based viewers. Among other things, the Trump devotees are spreading false conspiracy theories about an orchestrated “invasion”—and “child trafficking” funded by Democrats.
But one of the influencers, who occasionally contributes to a U.S. right-wing media network, is a deportee with a federal drug-trafficking conviction who has since repeatedly re-entered the U.S. to broadcast with Marjorie Taylor Greene allies, including a longtime friend of hers, The Daily Beast has learned. The other influencer is a U.S. and Mexican citizen who was filmed shoving a migrant child.
“They make us feel bad. They reduce our prospects of being able to enter the U.S.”
— Guatemalan migrant woman, 21
Hundreds of asylum seekers from Central America, Mexico, Haiti, and other countries are living in tents in a plaza just south of San Diego. They include new arrivals and families who have been waiting months or years for a chance to apply for asylum since former President Donald Trump threw up unprecedented barriers to legal entry, some of which Biden has yet to undo. Many fear for their lives because of gang violence in Tijuana and death threats at home.
Now, stuck in limbo, they must also contend with the xenophobia, racism, and hostility the conspiracy theorist livestreamers are stirring up as a sort of twisted, homegrown continuation of MAGA-style hate in Mexico.
At the camp on Wednesday, masked children played in the sunlight, maneuvering donated toys between their tents. A 21-year-old Guatemalan woman, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because she does not feel safe in Mexico, said she had been in Tijuana for two years. She showed The Daily Beast a file of documents she was hoping to present to U.S. officials to make her case for asylum, including the death certificates of two cousins she said were killed by a gang. One of the livestreamers, Oscar Ramirez, had visited the camp earlier in the day.
“They make us feel bad,” she said of the propagandists. “They reduce our prospects of being able to enter the U.S.”
Ramirez is a Mexican Trump fan known as “Oscar El Blue.” He has more than 86,000 followers between Facebook and YouTube, and was featured on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” three times this month as a self-styled “independent” reporter. With slicked-back hair and a large “45” tattoo on his arm, he appeared on Bannon’s show with Ben Bergquam, a correspondent for Real America’s Voice, a conservative news network founded in 2018 that streams Bannon’s show.
Bergquam, who calls himself a Christian conservative, promotes hysteria about immigration and defends the integrity of the Proud Boys, the far-right gang that has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a terrorist entity by the Canadian government, and featured prominently in the January attack on the U.S. Capitol. He refers to congresswoman Greene, known for promoting QAnon conspiracy theories, as a “friend” in a photograph with her. (A spokesperson for Greene did not respond to a request for comment.)
At the camp alongside Bergquam, Ramirez called Tijuana the most “violent and delinquent [city] in the world,” saying his hometown can’t handle the asylum seekers. In his Mexican accent, he told Bannon, “Tijuana citizens are paying a high price for this globalization.” Ramirez also claimed without evidence that U.S. nonprofits were promoting “fake families.”
In another appearance on Bannon’s show alongside Bergquam, this time in Yuma, Ramirez warned of “a lot of cartel activity” and said he had just met suspicious men who looked Middle Eastern. “I tried talking to them in Spanish, and they didn’t understand a word,” he said. “This is just an open gate!”
Ramirez claims he is only against illegal immigration and that he is trying to help asylum seekers and combat child trafficking. “I’m not promoting no negative feelings toward immigrants,” he told The Daily Beast. “I’m an immigrant myself.”
But Ramirez has publicly stated that Central Americans who want to immigrate to the U.S. are “lazy,” in search of “easy money, easy welfare.” He frequently conflates asylum seekers and their advocates with traffickers.
People who peddle white supremacist and race-baiting ideas have long used brown and Black allies as shields against criticism. Having Mexicans on the border performing right-wing political stances on immigration blunts allegations of racism, despite the established problem of colorism and internalized racism among Latinos.
As Ramirez’s star rises by virtue of his fearmongering about the border, Real America’s Voice viewers are likely unaware he has a federal drug trafficking conviction. According to court records reviewed by The Daily Beast, he was sentenced to four years in prison for importing methamphetamine in 2008. A service dog flagged his vehicle at the port of entry resulting in “the discovery of 23 packages of a white crystalline substance concealed inside the rocker panels,” including a package weighing nearly 25 kilograms that tested positive for meth. He said it was his “third smuggling venture,” per the records. He spent four years in prison before he was deported.
Ramirez initially denied to comment on the case, accusing this reporter of trying to “cover up the enormous trafficking of children and humans.” But he later confirmed to The Daily Beast that he is the individual named in the court records and said, “It is something I did in my past, and I regret it very much.”
Bannon and Real America’s Voice did not respond to requests for comment about their decision to feature a convicted drug trafficker as a talking head on border security.
In a buried 2019 video, Ramirez alluded to a troubled past, telling viewers he had been struggling after the 2008 recession and made a mistake. “I got busted in the border and they took away everything,” he said, adding that it was his dream to return to the U.S.
In April 2020, Ramirez’s dream came true: Less than two years after partnering with Bergquam at Real America’s Voice, he was apparently able to re-enter the U.S. in spite of his conviction, which made him inadmissible. A video shows him driving up to the El Paso port of entry with Anthony Agüero, another right-wing influencer whom Ramirez calls a “brother,” the other half of Ramirez’s Border Network News and a Bergquam associate. Agüero allegedly took part in the Jan. 6 insurrection and chanted with the Proud Boys, laughing hysterically as they tore up a Black Lives Matter sign. He is a close friend of Marjorie Taylor Greene, according to a CNN investigation, which also found he has a history of criminal violence.
“The migrants are people who are very, very easy to manipulate, OK?”
— Paloma Zuniga
In videos published about a month after Trump shut down the border to asylum seekers and all non-essential traffic due to the pandemic, Ramirez and Agüero sat in a car without masks, grinning widely and cracking up as they drove up to the border. Ramirez thanked Agüero and said, “Second chances in life, they really happen,” he said. Later, apparently in El Paso, he celebrated, “I’m back in the United States of America as an essential worker!” He promised to continue fighting “the invasion of the caravans,” then headed to a rally to reopen Texas where protesters defied stay-at-home orders. Ramirez agreed with the protesters, saying not reopening was “crazy.” He has appeared on video visiting San Diego and Yuma, where he interviewed Sheriff Leon Wilmot about cartel activity at the border.
According to the Immigration and Nationality Act, individuals convicted of drug trafficking are inadmissible to the United States without a very hard-to-get waiver from the Department of Homeland Security for a visa. That would be issued with a recommendation from the State Department or the attorney general. Immigration attorneys told The Daily Beast it would be virtually impossible to obtain the waiver without political connections or working as an informant. Under Trump, DHS limited its exercise of discretionary power, even for families with no criminal record.
Ramirez told The Daily Beast he obtained a visa under the Trump administration but declined to give details, becoming agitated when pressed, telling this reporter to “be careful” because he knows “all the journalists” in Mexico. Neither DHS nor the Department of Justice responded to requests for information about Ramirez’s alleged visa. The State Department declined to comment, citing “privacy protections.” Agüero replied, “I don’t talk to fake news!” Berquam declined to comment on Ramirez’s case.
Ramirez has also repeatedly dressed up in eye goggles, a face mask, a plastic face shield, and a full-body white suit, laughing at people who fear the coronavirus.
“This is the way you look!” he said in one video, giggling.
Ramirez’s fans often use the language of QAnon when railing against immigrants. “Those Kids need to be sent back,” one user commented on his page. “The DAMN DEMOCRATIC CABAL only wants children trafficking human trafficking caravan,” wrote another. “satan has control of the demoncrates!” a different person said. “Biden opened the flood gates, this is ALL his fault send them to him and Jill,” added another.
Ramirez is not the only influencer in Tijuana triggering anti-immigrant feelings.
This month, Paloma Zuniga, a dual U.S. and Mexican citizen known as “Paloma for Trump,” posted a video in which she argued with migrants who asked her to stop filming the camp. Many fear for their lives and do not want their images broadcast. She refused to stop, saying she was on a public street. “I’m not afraid of you!” she cried. Several people formed a blockade, chanting “Get out!” in Spanish. Some came close, and she told them that touching a person was a crime.
She remarked wryly to her audience, “These are the people who want to come into America, guys.”
Zuniga claimed Ramirez, who is effectively her rival, turned the camp against her. They used to be collaborators, but now Zuniga is very upset with him and makes a number of accusations about him. Ramirez declined to comment about Zuniga, whose antagonistic style does its own damage. Wearing a “Make Tijuana Great Again” red baseball cap over her long dark hair, Zuniga garnered more than 70,000 followers under Trump, when asylum seekers arrived in caravans. In 2018, she was part of a confrontation in which some protesters hurled rocks and insults at the Central Americans. Zuniga later expressed regret for her involvement in the incident. Then, in 2019, she was filmed chasing and physically shoving a child who was trying to enter the U.S. with his father. “Go back!” she cried in Spanish. “You can’t enter, this is not your country!”
Zuniga told The Daily Beast that she felt bad about that incident, too. “I was wrong for doing that,” she said. “What kind of demon got into me?”
Facebook shut down her account in 2019. She started a new one, but was surpassed in followers by Ramirez. She insists she has nothing against asylum seekers, only their alleged organizers and alleged criminals hiding among them. Still, she has scared some families. A woman who came from Honduras fleeing death threats two years ago and is still waiting for a chance to request asylum told The Daily Beast that Zuniga tried to record her three-year-old daughter without permission. “She scares me,” she said on condition of anonymity because of her precarious situation. “She scares most of us.” Zuniga denies filming or photographing children without permission.
In July 2019, Zuniga participated in a border wall symposium near El Paso organized by Bannon as part of the “We Build The Wall” campaign that got the former Trump aide arrested on charges of defrauding donors—at least until he was pardoned. At the event, speakers railed against an alleged invasion. Days later, prosecutors say a white racist executed 23 people at an El Paso Wal-Mart, citing a “Hispanic invasion.” Zuniga told The Daily Beast she condemns acts of violence, and doesn’t see a connection with her rhetoric. “I don’t believe killing people is the answer,” she said.
Still, like Ramirez, Zuniga promotes unfounded conspiracy theories about “well-funded” organizations paying for migrants to flood the U.S.
“The migrants are people who are very, very easy to manipulate, OK?” she said in one video.
Zuniga previously partnered with Bergquam, who now broadcasts with Ramirez. As the border has again become a source of international concern, she has continued visiting the asylum seekers and making videos.
Immigrant rights defenders are concerned the hysteria that the livestreamers are promoting could attract violent actors to the camp, or stall immigration reform efforts in Congress and keep doors closed to asylum seekers. That, in turn, could compel vulnerable people to risk their lives by entering illegally, such as a mother who recently drowned in the Pacific Ocean trying to swim to San Diego from Tijuana. This even as the number of migrant children in U.S. custody surges and officials reportedly consider flying people across the country and housing families in hotels to ease overcrowding.
Meanwhile, the asylum seekers at the Tijuana camp continue to fantasize about one day finding safety in the country that is footsteps from where they sleep. If the past is any indication, few who manage to enter, even without drug-trafficking convictions or any criminal history, will be permitted to hold onto those dreams for very long.