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Elon Musk, America’s richest immigrant, is angry about immigration. Can he influence the election?

Photo illustration of Elon Musk, Donald Trump, photos of immigrants and maps
(Photo illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times; Photos via Getty Images, Eric Gay / Associated Press)
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Elon Musk and his brother Kimbal were speaking to a crowd of business leaders in 2013 about creating their first company when the conversation seemed to go off script. Originally from South Africa, Kimbal said the brothers lacked lawful immigration status when they began the business in the U.S.

“In fact, when they did fund us, they realized that we were illegal immigrants,” Kimbal said, according to a recording of the interview from the Milken Institute Global Conference.

“I’d say it was a gray area,” Elon replied with a laugh.

Eleven years later, Elon was back at the Milken Institute last month in Beverly Hills, talking once again about immigration. This time, he described the southern border as a scene out of the zombie apocalypse and said the legal immigration process is long and “Kafkaesque.”

“I’m a big believer in immigration, but to have unvetted immigration at large scale is a recipe for disaster,” Musk said at the conference. “So I’m in favor of greatly expediting legal immigration but having a secure southern border.”

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For first time in 25 years, San Diego is the top spot in the nation for migrant border crossings, surpassing Tucson.

April 25, 2024

Musk, the most financially successful immigrant in the U.S. and the third-richest person in the world, has frequently repeated his view that it is difficult to immigrate to the U.S. legally but “trivial and fast” to enter illegally. What he leaves out: Seeking asylum is a legal right under national and international law, regardless of how a person arrives on U.S. soil.

But as the election year ramps up and Republicans make border security a major theme of their campaigns, Musk’s comments about immigration have grown increasingly extreme. The chief executive of SpaceX and Tesla, who purchased the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) in 2022, has sometimes used his giant microphone to elevate racist conspiracies and spread misinformation about immigration law.

Musk’s business manager did not respond to a request for comment, nor did representatives for SpaceX and Tesla. X does not have a department that responds to news media inquiries.

While Musk’s views are clear, what’s murkier is his influence. Some see him as an influential opinion maker with the power to shape policy and sway voters, while others dismiss him as a social media bomb thrower mainly heard within a conservative echo chamber.

“If you haven’t heard it already, I’m sure you’re going to see members of Congress citing Elon Musk and pointing to his tweets, and that’s a scary concept,” said Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-San Pedro), who leads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

She says she believes Musk is influential with her Republican colleagues who are “always looking for new anti-immigrant talking points.”

Polling shows immigration is a top issue for voters. For the third month in a row, it was named by respondents to an open-ended April Gallup poll as the most important problem facing the U.S.

Since Trump got Republicans to bail on a bipartisan border deal, some Democrats have grown more outspoken in favor of stricter immigration policies and stronger border security.

March 21, 2024

The November election that’s shaping up as a rematch between President Biden and former President Trump will be the first presidential contest since Musk bought X — a site Trump had been banned from for inciting violence before Musk reinstated his account last year.

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Musk used the platform to come to Trump’s defense last week after the former president was criminally convicted for falsifying records in a hush money scheme. “Great damage was done today to the public’s faith in the American legal system,” Musk wrote on X, calling Trump’s crime a “trivial matter.”

After meeting with Trump in March, Musk told former CNN anchor Don Lemon that he’s “leaning away” from Biden, but doesn’t plan to endorse Trump yet. He also said he won’t donate to any presidential campaign.

Campaign contribution records show Musk regularly donated to both Republicans and Democrats through 2020. That includes a handful of donations to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said his relationship with Musk dates back to his time as San Francisco mayor but that they’ve never discussed immigration.

“I think people have formed very strong opinions on this topic,” Newsom said. “I don’t know that he’s influencing that debate in a disproportionate way. Not one human being has ever said, ‘Hey, did you see Elon’s thing about immigration?’”

How Musk talks about immigration on X

Last year Musk visited the Eagle Pass, Texas, border, meeting with local politicians and law enforcement to get what he called an “unfiltered” view of the situation.

He also helped spread viral reports falsely claiming the Biden administration had “secretly” flown hundreds of thousands of migrants into the U.S. to reduce border arrivals.

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“This administration is both importing voters and creating a national security threat from unvetted illegal immigrants,” Musk wrote March 5 on X. “It is highly probable that the groundwork is being laid for something far worse than 9/11.”

But the migrants in question fly commercial under a program created by the Biden administration, exercising the president’s authority to temporarily admit people for humanitarian reasons. The program allows up to 30,000 vetted people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela lawfully relocate to the U.S. each month and obtain work permits if they have a financial sponsor.

Contrary to Musk’s claim that the administration is looking for Democratic voters, those arriving under the program have no pathway to citizenship. The claim gives fuel to extremist ideologies such as great replacement theory, the racist conspiracy that there’s a plot to reduce the population of white people.

Elon Musk, wearing a black Stetson hat, livestreams while visiting the Texas-Mexico border.
Elon Musk, wearing a black Stetson hat, livestreams while visiting the southern border in September in Eagle Pass, Texas. Musk toured the border along the bank of the Rio Grande with Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas).
(John Moore / Getty Images)

Earlier this year, Musk targeted a controversial bill in the California Legislature that would help immigrants with serious or violent felony convictions fight deportation using state funds. Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) pulled the bill after Republicans slammed it on social media, garnering the attention of Musk, who wrote about it on X: “When is enough enough?”

In February, shortly after a bipartisan group of senators released details of a border security bill that had gone through lengthy negotiations, Musk again echoed great replacement theory, writing on X: “The long-term goal of the so-called ‘Border Security’ bill is enabling illegals to vote! It will do the total opposite of securing the border.”

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Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) shot back.

“No, it’s not focused on trying to be able to get more illegals to vote,” Lankford said on CNN. “That’s absurd.”

Musk’s immigration journey

There’s a particular irony in Musk attacking the program that allows limited arrivals for humanitarian reasons while simultaneously saying he favors legal immigration, said Ahilan Arulanantham, a lawyer, professor and co-director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at UCLA. The program offers would-be migrants a lawful pathway to reach the U.S. and reduced arrivals at the border from the beneficiary countries.

“That shows a very deep confusion about a fairly basic point about immigration law and the way the policy works,” Arulanantham said. Musk’s lack of criticism of a similar program for Ukrainians illustrates the undercurrent of racism accompanying attacks on the program for Latin American migrants, he added.

Musk amplifying false claims is counterproductive to rational immigration policy, Arulanantham said.

“Every voice adds to the pile, and the louder the voice, the marginally greater the addition to the pile,” Arulanantham said. “He is a very loud voice.”

Elon Musk visited Israel, where he toured a kibbutz that was attacked last month by Hamas militants and met with top leaders.

Nov. 27, 2023

David Kaye, a UC Irvine law professor who studies platform moderation, said Musk’s promotion of misleading or false statements, including those about immigrants, is concerning because he can influence conversations on X in a way no one else can.

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“There’s already a pretty robust kind of alarmist approach to immigration, so Musk might only add a little bit of fuel to a pretty big fire,” Kaye said. “But the fact is he’s got a ton of followers. To the extent he promotes disinformation, I think that’s a cause for concern for the United States having fair and fact-driven debates over immigration.”

Musk’s own immigration story is described in the biography “Elon Musk” by Walter Isaacson. Musk left South Africa in 1989 for Canada, where his mother had relatives, Isaacson wrote. While in college he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania and, after graduating, enrolled at Stanford but immediately requested a deferral.

He and his brother Kimbal had invented an interactive network directory service, like a precursor to Google Maps.

Just before pitching the idea to a venture company, Kimbal was stopped by U.S. border officials at the airport on his way back from a trip to Toronto “who looked in his luggage and saw the pitch deck, business cards and other documents for the company. Because he did not have a U.S. work visa, they wouldn’t let him board the plane,” Isaacson writes in the book. So a friend picked him up and drove him into the U.S. after telling another border agent that they were seeing the David Letterman show.

After finalizing the investment, the firm found immigration lawyers to help the Musk brothers get work visas, according to Isaacson.

Once Musk married his first wife, he became eligible for U.S. citizenship, and took the oath in 2002 at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds.

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Author Walter Isaacson joined the L.A. Times Book Club to discuss the stories and controversy behind his bestselling “Elon Musk” biography.

Oct. 2, 2023

Musk’s recent commentary on immigration and other political issues appears to be a reversal from his views a decade ago, said Nu Wexler, who has worked in policy communications at tech companies and for congressional Democrats.

Wexler recalled when Musk left Fwd.us, the political action organization spearheaded by Meta Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg in 2013 to advocate for immigration reform. Musk left because Fwd.us backed conservative lawmakers who wanted immigration reform but supported oil drilling and other policies that went against Musk’s environmental priorities.

“I agreed to support Fwd.us because there is a genuine need to reform immigration. However, this should not be done at the expense of other important causes,” Musk told the news site AllThingsD at the time.

When Zuckerberg created Fwd.us, it made smart business sense for tech executives to make the business case for immigration reform, Wexler said. Now, immigration is a more divisive issue and executives on the left are less willing to dive into politics.

“At some point he decided that being the main character was helpful personal branding,” Wexler said of Musk. “I don’t know if he’s going to change minds on immigration, although he might be able to fire up the base.”

Alex Conant, a GOP consultant and partner at the public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies, said Musk’s influence could grow if Trump wins the election. If an immigration bill were to take shape at that point, Musk’s endorsement or rejection could shape the debate, he said.

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“That’s the sort of scenario where all the sudden he might have some power,” he said.

There appears to be growing evidence for that possibility. Trump and Musk have discussed a possible advisory role for the billionaire, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. If Trump reclaims the White House, Musk could provide formal input on border security policies.

Times staff writer Taryn Luna contributed to this report.

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