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A flyer in her name told migrants to vote for Biden. But she says she didn't write it

Abandoned tents remain at the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, that is at the center of a controversy involving viral images of a flyer encouraging migrants to vote for President Biden.
Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for NPR
Abandoned tents remain at the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, that is at the center of a controversy involving viral images of a flyer encouraging migrants to vote for President Biden.

Viral images of the flyer were filmed in portable toilets of a migrant camp in Mexico, and they energized members of Congress. But NPR's reporting suggests the flyer is not what it purports to be.

April 15 started off as a typical day for Gabriela Zavala. Like usual, she was focused on juggling a busy family life with remotely running a small organization that helps asylum-seekers in Matamoros, Mexico.

But by evening, the 41-year-old's email inbox started to fill with threats.

Zavala showed NPR emails, some of which included racist language, that said, "Don't think for one moment that we are not watching," and "kill yourself."

The vitriol started after a social media thread from one of the most influential conservative institutions in the U.S. went viral.

"BREAKING - Flyers distributed at NGO in Mexico encouraging illegals to vote for President Biden," read the first post in a 10-part thread on X, formerly known as Twitter, posted at 9:03 p.m. U.S. Central time by the Heritage Foundation's Oversight Project.

The Heritage Foundation's investigative arm shared an image of the flyer and a video of copies hanging inside portable toilets at a Matamoros migrant camp. Within 12 hours, members of Congress would raise the flyer in hearings with Biden administration officials and use it to justify more restrictive voting laws.

To Zavala's surprise, the flyer had her name on it, along with her organization's logo. Zavala told NPR in an April 30 interview that she didn't write it and has no connection to it. The flyer also had a Biden campaign logo, and in awkwardly written Spanish, it read in part, "Reminder to vote for President Biden when you are in the United States. We need another four years of his term to stay open."

"I was almost in a state of shock," said Zavala, a U.S. citizen who lives in Texas. "And I said, 'Wow, you know, this is completely untrue.'"

Gabriela Zavala runs a small nonprofit that helps asylum-seekers in Matamoros, Mexico.
/ Gaby Zavala
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Gaby Zavala
Gabriela Zavala runs a small nonprofit that helps asylum-seekers in Matamoros, Mexico.

Zavala said her group, Resource Center Matamoros (RCM), is focused on helping asylum-seekers and has nothing to do with politics. "We have never encouraged people to vote for anyone," said Zavala, who added that she is well aware that noncitizens are ineligible to vote. She said she would never "tell somebody that can't vote — that I know can't vote — 'Hey, go vote.'"

Parts of the thread include a brief snippet of a recorded conversation with Zavala and details about her professional background.

The final post in the Heritage thread reads, "This flyer obviously seeks to prey on unsophisticated illegals and encourages them to illegally vote." It quickly racked up more than 9 million views and was boosted by X's owner, Elon Musk.

Mike Howell, the executive director of the Heritage Foundation's Oversight Project, said the flyer is "accurate." He also said the thread does not accuse Zavala of authoring it. Yet his organization's posts amplified the flyer, which bears her name, to a large audience, including members of Congress, and highlighted Zavala and her organization. Later posts published by Heritage criticize and attempt to rebut media efforts to fact-check Zavala's purported connection to the flyer. Howell has condemned threats of violence related to the flyer.

A screenshot of the viral flyer from Project Oversight's account on X.
Project Oversight / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR
A screenshot of the viral flyer from Project Oversight's account on X.

NPR's on-the-ground reporting with RCM officials, migrants and other aid workers, along with additional reporting, has found no evidence to support the narrative that there is an effort underway in Matamoros to encourage migrants to vote in U.S. elections. Nor did NPR find any evidence that Zavala has any connection to the flyer besides the obvious fact that someone put her name and logo on it.

In an interview with NPR, both Howell and the social media influencer who collaborated on the thread acknowledged that they did not try to verify with Zavala whether she or anyone at RCM created the flyers before they posted on X. (You can read or watch NPR's interview with the Oversight Project here.)

Zavala said she felt "victimized" and kept wondering, "Why would somebody want to do this? Why would somebody want to intentionally create a fake flyer?"

The Heritage thread buttressed a key narrative of former President Donald Trump and his allies, who have made false claims about noncitizens swaying election outcomes since 2016 and who had been emphasizing the issue in the months before the flyer appeared online.

At a time when U.S. border agencies have been overwhelmed by record-high numbers of asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, the current iteration of this narrative is that President Biden is allowing migrants to enter the U.S. so they will illegally vote for him.

"If the ground is being seeded with claims like these," said Jared Holt, a senior research analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an international think tank focused on extremism around the world, "then that may very well be another possible avenue to try to delegitimize democratic processes in this country."

Behind the thread

The Heritage thread says the flyer was discovered by Muckraker, a right-wing video site. Anthony Rubin, the site's founder, often uses undercover tactics in his videos. He has traveled across Latin America to film migrants in transit to the United States. He portrays them as an "invasion" and has appeared as a guest on outlets that have spread conspiracy theories, including Alex Jones' Infowars. Juries in Connecticut and Texas ordered Jones to pay a combined $1.5 billion to the families of victims of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., for falsely claiming the shooting was a hoax.

In an interview with NPR, Rubin said he was tipped off to the existence of the flyer by a shelter worker in New York who said a migrant had received one in Matamoros. He said the video of the flyers was shot by an anonymous source with a "close connection" to his team.

Muckraker's own X account

The Heritage Foundation launched the Oversight Project in 2022 to investigate and provide "aggressive oversight" of the Biden administration. Howell declined to comment on the relationship between Heritage and Muckraker or whether Muckraker was being paid for the content.

"We're going up against some very powerful and dangerous people to include the cartels, weaponized Biden administration, etc., and we're not interested in giving an org chart out," Howell said, adding that he was glad to work with "anybody across any ideological spectrum who's willing to fight the invasion of the United States."

The Heritage thread, in addition to publicizing the flyers, also includes posts that link RCM to HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. It notes that Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas once sat on the board of HIAS, a Jewish organization with offices in 20 countries that aids migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees.

Other posts suggest a connection between Zavala and RCM and liberal billionaire George Soros and point out that he has given money to HIAS. While the intent of the posts is unclear, Soros, who is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor, is the target of many far-right and antisemitic conspiracy theories.

HIAS released a statement saying that it has no connection to the flyers and does not support their message. Beth Oppenheim, the organization's chief advancement officer, said in recent months that HIAS has "increasingly become a target" for misinformation online. She said the other campaigns against HIAS have referenced "great replacement" theory, which falsely claims that Jews are bringing immigrants into the U.S. to replace white Americans. Several mass shooters have cited the theory as justification for their acts.

An unexpected visit

To date, it is unknown who created the flyer. But right away, Zavala said, she understood one piece of the mystery behind the viral social media thread.

Earlier on April 15, the same day the thread appeared, two American men wearing flip-flops rang the bell at RCM's building in Matamoros and said they wanted to volunteer. The scene was captured by RCM's security cameras. NPR was given access to the footage.

Later, it would become clear that the two men were Anthony Rubin, the founder of Muckraker, and his brother, Joshua Rubin.

Anthony Rubin can be heard on security footage saying that he and his brother previously worked with migrants "in Colombia, in Panama."

Hugo Terrones, RCM's director, came outside to meet the men, who were never let inside. Terrones said that Anthony Rubin, who was speaking in broken Spanish, claimed he worked for HIAS. That exchange can be faintly made out on the security footage. HIAS briefly rented office space from RCM two years ago.

The director of Resource Center Matamoros, Hugo Terrones, spoke to Muckraker founder Anthony Rubin and his brother after the pair showed up at RCM's office asking about volunteer opportunities. But they were never allowed inside.
/ Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for NPR
The director of Resource Center Matamoros, Hugo Terrones, spoke to Muckraker founder Anthony Rubin and his brother after the pair showed up at RCM's office asking about volunteer opportunities. But they were never allowed inside.

Terrones called Zavala and handed over his phone so Rubin could speak with her in English.

Zavala said she told Rubin about volunteering at the shelter, which can include tasks such as cleaning or playing with children.

Later she would discover a snippet of that brief conversation in Heritage's X thread with a caption saying Zavala implied that "she wants to help as many illegals as possible before President Trump is reelected."

In the recording, Rubin can be heard saying, "In all honesty, we're just trying to help as many people as possible before Trump gets reelected."

Zavala replies with a laugh: "Believe me, we're in the same boat."

"It was in the context of volunteering," Zavala told NPR. "Yes, we want to help as many people as we can, you know? And for me, it's like, regardless of who's in office."

Rubin did not deny to NPR that he introduced himself as a volunteer and a HIAS worker. "Absolutely, we were down there, and we were inquiring whether or not it would be possible to volunteer," Rubin said.

He previously told The New York Times that he did not recall whether he had said he was with HIAS. A spokesperson for HIAS said Rubin has never been employed by the organization.

Terrones told NPR that Rubin had asked him unusual questions, including whether Terrones knew of organizations in the U.S. that help migrants vote for Biden. Terrones said he kept answering, "No."

"He kept repeating and was very persistent, asking us if we would vote for Biden," said Terrones. He said Rubin asked, "Biden or Trump?"

Rubin said he does not recall what he asked Terrones. In his videos, Rubin often asks migrants similar questions. Rubin told NPR that in those videos, migrants "all say Biden." He said that this means it would be "pretty ridiculous" to think "this would not be then weaponized once they cross the border."

Trump enacted a series of escalating policies to chip away at the U.S. asylum system when he was in office, and he has pledged to continue if he is elected again. Biden was critical of Trump's policies when he ran for president in 2020. Once in office, Biden continued the emergency border policies that Trump enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic that turned away many asylum-seekers until last May, and he introduced new asylum restrictions.

Biden has urged asylum-seekers to use a U.S. government app to make an appointment at a port of entry and avoid crossing the border illegally. But appointment slots are scarce, so migrants arriving in Mexican border cities like Matamoros end up waiting weeks or months in dangerous and difficult conditions.

The flyer becomes political fodder

Just 12 hours after the flyer was posted to X, Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Dan Bishop both brought posters of the flyer to a budget hearing with Mayorkas. This was shortly before they presented articles of impeachment against him.

"How can Congress and the American people have confidence that the outcome of close elections will not turn on the votes of noncitizens who have registered and voted unlawfully?" Bishop asked.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., holds a sign showing a screenshot of the viral flyer as Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on April 16.
Allison Bailey/NurPhoto / Reuters
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Reuters
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., holds a sign showing a screenshot of the viral flyer as Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on April 16.

The Daily Signal, the Heritage Foundation's news site, later published a roundup of Republican lawmakers' responses to the flyers, in which many of them called for stricter voting laws.

It is already illegal for noncitizens to cast ballots in federal elections, and studies have repeatedly shown it is rare. The topic gained new attention in April, when Trump and House Speaker Mike Johnson promoted federal legislation that would implement new citizenship documentation requirements.

Gilda Daniels, an election law professor at the University of Baltimore, recently told NPR that requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote would make it much harder for many eligible U.S. citizens, including students, older adults and poor people, to vote.

Clumsy translations, defunct phone numbers

Zavala said a "blanket of fear" fell over her in the days after the flyers went viral.

"I didn't know how to respond. I didn't know if I should respond," Zavala said. "If I say something, is it going to fuel the fire more? Will this cause more death threats?"

She shut down her social media accounts as the hateful messages kept coming.

She said it bothered her that no one publicizing the flyer on social media or in Congress had checked with her about whether she or anyone at RCM had written it.

"They never cared to call me and find out whether it was true or not," Zavala said. "I mean, that really is, you know, an attack on my character as a person."

Rubin told NPR that it "certainly occurred to me" to ask RCM to verify the flyer when he visited, but he didn't want to bring attention to himself because he said he had previously been kidnapped by the Gulf Cartel near there. "I need to maintain a low profile here because I am in enemy territory. The cartel literally told me, 'Never come back here again.'"

Howell, a former attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, acknowledged that the Oversight Project did not reach out to Zavala before publishing the X thread because "it was in the immediate public interest to know about the invasion in the United States." He added, "Would the United States reach out to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] to verify intelligence about them flooding fentanyl into this country? Of course not."

Howell noted that the Heritage Foundation's news outlet, The Daily Signal, sought comment from Zavala after the thread was published. The first story that The Daily Signal published about the thread, on April 15, does not mention seeking comment from Zavala; only the second story, on April 16, does. The second story says Zavala didn't respond to The Daily Signal.

Zavala said there are a number of clues that suggest the flyer was not written by her or anyone at RCM.

It contains errors, such as "Bienvedinos" instead of "Bienvenidos" (Welcome). Zavala is not a native Spanish-speaker, but she said she checks the grammar and spelling of what she writes in Spanish.

Whoever made the flyer relied heavily on RCM's English-language website, which has dated posts that stop after 2021. Zavala said she has not had the time or resources to update it.

The flyer lists a defunct phone number that Zavala said she hasn't used in years but is still listed on the website.

The first two sentences of the flyer appear to be an old description of the organization copied directly from the website and run through Google Translate into Spanish. It mentions that HIAS shares the office, an arrangement that ended in 2022, according to both groups.

The next two sentences, which remind readers to vote for Biden when they get to the U.S., are written in a different style and are riddled with more errors than the previous ones. That section translates "United States" as "estados unidos," without the usual capitalization, while the previous section uses the abbreviation "los EE. UU."

There are also inaccuracies in the X thread. The thread says the site where the video shows the flyers is a "Resource Center Matamoras (RCM) location."

But RCM has not staffed the site for years, which was also confirmed to NPR by people from other local nongovernmental organizations who work with migrants. Glady Cañas of Ayudándoles a Triunfar and Andrea Rudnik of Team Brownsville both told NPR that there is no longer a formal camp at that site.

Glady Cañas, president of Ayudándoles a Triunfar, stands outside the organization's offices in Matamoros, Mexico.
/ Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for NPR
Glady Cañas, president of Ayudándoles a Triunfar, stands outside the organization's offices in Matamoros, Mexico.

NPR visited the site and saw an informal encampment with a small number of migrants staying there, but did not see any evidence of the flyers. Anyone can access the encampment, which is in a city park along the banks of the Rio Grande.

Aid workers like Cañas are redirecting migrants who show up at the encampment to shelters.

Rubin told NPR that Terrones, RCM's director, gave him a "firsthand" tour of the camp the day he visited, was "letting himself into these different tents" and introduced Rubin to a Russian man who was staying there. "So this idea that they don't have any tie-ins with that camp is total nonsense," said Rubin.

Terrones maintains that RCM currently has no role at the site, which he considers closed. He said he took the Rubin brothers to the encampment because he had trouble communicating with them and was trying to tell them it was basically empty. He said he opened tents to show them no one was inside. He said he had met the Russian man weeks earlier when he came to RCM asking for help.

Cañas and Rudnik each told NPR that they had never seen the flyers at the encampment or heard about them from other volunteers or migrants.

"Somebody would have noticed it," said Rudnik, a co-founder and volunteer with Team Brownsville. "And nobody did."

She also said she had never seen any organizations hang flyers in the portable toilets before.

"Those port-a-potties are pretty filthy," Rudnik said. "If we wanted people to know something, it would be put in a different place."

Migrants who remain at the encampment denied ever seeing the flyers. Orlando Martínez, a 36-year-old from El Salvador, said he has been at the site for over a year and has never seen any such flyers, "nor has anyone come to say we should vote for Biden." He was among just a handful of people present when NPR visited on the afternoon of April 29.

Orlando Martínez, from El Salvador, has been living at a migrant camp in Matamoros for more than a year. He says that he has not seen the flyers and that no one has told him to vote in U.S. elections.
/ Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for NPR
Orlando Martínez, from El Salvador, has been living at a migrant camp in Matamoros for more than a year. He says that he has not seen the flyers and that no one has told him to vote in U.S. elections.

"No one who crosses illegally can vote," Martínez said. He said he knows the same is true for those who make an appointment to enter through a U.S. port of entry.

There was no evidence of flyers in sight when NPR toured RCM's building. Asylum-seekers who have been at RCM for weeks as they wait for their appointments at the border told NPR they had not seen the flyer or been encouraged to vote in the U.S. either.

A second thread

Zavala decided to break her silence and gave a brief comment to The Associated Press. The April 17 story reported that Zavala said she hadn't made the flyer, did not know who had, and does not encourage immigrants to vote. Other fact-checking organizations, including PolitiFact and Lead Stories, published articles citing Zavala's denial to the AP and the flyer's Spanish-language errors.

Among those who questioned the Heritage thread was Fox News national correspondent Bill Melugin, who regularly covers border issues. "I am extremely skeptical of this," Melugin posted on X. "There's plenty of controversy with some NGO's, but this flier seems fake or doctored, even at first glance."

Heritage has stood by its story.

On April 25, 10 days after the initial thread, Heritage released a second X thread. It criticizes "legacy media" for discrediting the flyer based on Zavala's denial and the translation errors. It points out that Zavala is not a native Spanish-speaker.

In an interview with NPR, Howell added, "The counterattack [against the story] has provided absolutely zero evidence. Our international bombshell reporting has stood the test of all scrutiny and will withstand some more."

The second X thread also included an excerpt of an affidavit with the name and signature apparently redacted. The affidavit's author claimed to have seen 40 copies of the flyer "inside the shelter," which appears to be a reference to RCM. The author says that they took a flyer to their home and that the next day they saw a similar flyer inside the portable toilets at the camp and recorded a video.

"The individual who authored the affidavit is somebody that we have a close connection with," Rubin said. "This isn't some random individual."

Howell said they wouldn't give more details about the affidavit's author. "Obviously we're protecting our sources and methods on this."

NPR was unable to verify the affidavit's account, which is dated April 19, four days after Heritage's first thread was published. The affidavit gives no time frame for when the events it describes occurred.

Heritage's X thread calls the migrant camp a "hotbed for political activity." It includes photos of a tour that Jill Biden took of the camp when her husband was running for president in 2020, a photo of a Biden campaign sign hanging in the camp in 2021 and a photo showing "Bye Trump" balloons at the camp after the last presidential election.

Zavala said RCM, which did work closely with the camp during the time the photos were taken, did not put up any campaign signs. Zavala said she chose not to attend Jill Biden's visit.

The offices of Resource Center Matamoros. The nonprofit works with asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.
/ Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for NPR
The offices of Resource Center Matamoros. The nonprofit works with asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

She said in the lead-up to the 2020 election, some asylum-seekers had been stuck at the camp for well over a year due to Trump administration policies. "All their hopes were riding on a new administration coming in," she said. She said some migrants chose to put up signs "without influence or encouragement by any NGO, including RCM."

Rudnik, of Team Brownsville, remembers a volunteer from the U.S., who was not affiliated with an NGO, put up the "Bye Trump" balloons on her own. Zavala said she didn't know about the balloons at the time, but had anyone asked her, "I would have said, 'No, it is not a good idea.'"

Sharing her side of the story

By the time Heritage published its second social media thread, Zavala had decided she had to say more publicly. She agreed to talk to a reporter for The New York Times and then to NPR. "It wasn't enough that I just denied it," Zavala said about the flyer. "I need to share my side of the story. People need to hear what actually happened."

Zavala wanted the public to know that the Rubin brothers rang the bell at RCM hours before the thread published.

She said while it is clear who publicized the flyers, she doesn't know who made them, who put them in the portable toilets or who created the video.

"If I can't tell you exactly who it was and really have it in evidence, I'm not going to go out there and accuse somebody of something," Zavala said. She said even though she felt that whoever made the flyer "smeared" her name and put it through "the entire national public spotlight," she is not willing to do the same to anyone else.

She still feels fearful about what having her name associated with this flyer could mean for her, her family and her staff.

It weighs on her that acts of violence, like the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the 2019 mass shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, have been inspired by immigration-themed conspiracy theories.

"What if one crazy extremist takes this to heart and says, 'I'm just going to hurt them'?" Zavala said.

In an interview with The New York Times that Heritage shared online, Howell condemned death threats, saying he gets them "all the time." He added, "No one should do it."

Zavala said she will continue to focus on her mission to help asylum-seekers.

"There's people fleeing from extreme situations, extreme circumstances," Zavala said. "And if I have the resources and the capability to help them, I will."

NPR's Audrey Nguyen, Texas Public Radio's Gaige Davila and independent journalist Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas contributed reporting to this story. Davila and Cárdenas reported from Matamoros, Mexico.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jude Joffe-Block
[Copyright 2024 NPR]