On May Day 2013 thousands of people turned out onto the streets in hundreds of cities to march for comprehensive immigration reform. With the process partially underway, IREHR takes a look at five different things human rights supporters should be keeping an eye on as the debate moves forward.
1. Tea Partiers Lead the Counter-Mobilization
In contrast to the seeming “consensus” view that immigration reform is a fait accompli, anti-immigrant forces still think they can kill the bill. Unlike the 2005-2007 battles over comprehensive immigration reform, however, there isn’t a unified opposition lead by a close-knit network of anti-immigrant groups. This time, the situation is much more fluid and complicated.
Established anti-immigrant groups are in no position to lead the charge against the new immigration bill. As IREHR first noted in the January 2012 report, Beyond FAIR: The Decline of the Established Anti-Immigrant Organization and the Rise of Tea Party Nativism, the level of support for the national nativist groups like FAIR, NumbersUSA, CIS, etc. declined significantly in recent years, as have the number of local groups. Recently released data obtained by IREHR indicates that the membership base of FAIR, the oldest and arguably most influential nativist group in the country, continues to whither. In 2007 the group’s mailing list contained 45,000 individuals who had contributed to the organization during the previous 24 months. By 2011, that number fell to 18,848. In 2012, it dropped to 13,557. As of May 2013, FAIR’s 24-month donor list shriveled to just 10,675. That’s a 76% decline from 2007, and a 21% drop from just last year. FAIR’s 12-month donor list also declined from 6,701 in 2012 to 5,399 today, a 19% deterioration.
Without a ground game, FAIR is using its supporters among talk radio hosts to mobilize opposition to reform. On April 17-18, the group held its Radio Row event- bringing more than 50 nativist-friendly talk-show hosts to DC to flood the airwaves with anti-immigrant talking points on April 17-18. Since the first of these annual events in 2007, the lead organizer helping FAIR has been former San Diego mayor turned radio ranter, Roger Hedgecock. On February 4, Hedgecock equated teaching about racism with "hatred of white people," exclaimed that "hatred of white people has now become an epidemic in this country", that the California public school curriculum was "anti-white" while blaming President Obama for "racial tensions" that "are at an all-time high in my lifetime."
As documented in Beyond FAIR, numerous factors have left anti-immigrant groups in a weakened state, less well-equipped this time around. The Tea Party movement captured much of the popular anti-immigrant sentiment, broadening the reach of this sentiment. To a significant extent, the Tea Parties have usurped the Nativist Establishment and in the process swallowed up the many of its activists. The Tea Party will be leading the fight this time.
On the Tea Party front, multiple battle lines have formed, while at least one group has left the field altogether. Counter-mobilization to kill the bill is already underway with five of the six national Tea Party factions identified in Tea Party Nationalism, as well as the newer group, TheTeaParty.net, staking out various anti-immigrant positions. A quick accounting of these forces reveals the following:
The Tea Party Nativist Epicenter – 1776 Tea Party, Patriot Action Network, Tea Party Nation
Three national Tea Party factions, the 1776 Tea Party, the Patriot Action Network, and Tea Party Nation make up the Tea Party nativist epicenter. All three of these factions have expressed unwavering opposition to immigration reform, and promoted nativism and Islamophobia from the beginning.
The 1776 Tea Party (aka TeaParty.org) is run by former leaders of the border vigilante Minuteman Project. Patriot Action Network (originally known as ResistNet) is a project of Grassfire Inc, a for-profit company which built up a sizable mailing list circulating nativist online petitions during the 2005-2007 immigration fights. Tea Party Nation called for a return to the racist 1924 National Origins Act, warned that immigrants are causing "White Anglo-Saxon protestant extinction," and advocated gutting the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship rights. All three of these factions continue to promote an explicitly racist brand of anti-immigrant nativism. All three have been agitating on the issue for months. The closer legislation gets to passage, expect the volume and the racism from these groups to intensify.
The Inside Game – TheTeaParty.Net and Tea Party Express
While the groups in the Tea Party nativist center will be mobilizing in the states and local areas, other Tea Party factions are trying to hold sway in the halls of Congress. On May 7, leaders from the Tea Party Express and TheTeaParty.Net joined other conservative leaders in a meeting with Sen. Rubio to discuss the bill, according an article in Politico entitled, “Immigration’s new ally: Tea partiers.”
The Tea Party factions are definitely not immigrants “allies,” however. TheTeaParty.net quickly responded to the Politico story on the group’s Facebook page, “We have received messages of concern from people around the country likely based upon erroneous and misleading information in a Politico story. Contrary to what they are trying to lead you to believe, TheTeaParty.net DOES NOT support the Gang of Eight Immigration bill! A meeting to hear what one side thinks does NOT in any way, shape, or form mean agreement. Again, TheTeaParty.net DOES NOT support the Gang of Eight Immigration bill. Leave it to the left to try to smear the principles of this movement. Don’t let them.”
In fact, even while fighting against gun background checks and cooking up conspiracy theories about Benghazi, TheTeaParty.net had already tipped their hand on where they stood on immigration more than a month before the meeting with Rubio. On April 3, the group sent out an email blast for one of their sponsors, the nativist group NumbersUSA, entitled “Amnesty Betrays Tea Party.” The email suggested recipients send faxes to Senators Rubio and Paul asking them to abandon their support of “amnesty.”
The Tea Party Express has generally been more circumspect about going nativist, but lately they’ve added immigration and guns to fundraising pitches. No official reaction from them regarding the meeting with Rubio.
Stirring the Grassroots: Tea Party Patriots
After years of claiming that they had no involvement in “social issues” like immigration, Tea Party Patriots is leading the charge against the immigration bill, though in different way than the other Tea Party factions. This week, the group launched the“No More Train Wrecks” campaign, an effort to kill the bill.
“Already we’ve launched a massive online grassroots effort against this train wreck in the making. All week long we are pounding Congress with phone calls, email, and social media,” announced a May 7 email from the group.
To rally their base, Tea Party Patriots are taking the tact of comparing the battle over immigration reform with the fight over healthcare. They are calling the Senate compromise, “Obamacare Redux.” An email blast to supporters warned, “This 844 page mess will massively expand the welfare state. It won’t require our borders to be sealed any time soon. It is chock-full of loopholes, hidden regulations and secret back-room deals for various industries and special interest groups.”
Tea Party Patriots co-founder Martin tried to make the issue about process rather than substance, presumably to sidestep the vicious racism of the nativists inside and outside of her ranks, she nonetheless used the slur “illegals” to describe undocumented immigrants.
In an email to supporters, Martin wrote, “This is not about amnesty. It is not about illegals. It is about how government has gone off the rails. Just like Obamacare that was negotiated behind closed doors, any legislation cooked up in a secretive gang-like attitude among D.C. politicians is not the kind of system the forefathers had in mind.”
At the same time, hundreds of the local chapters aligned with Tea Party Patriots are rhetorically more in tune with Tea Party nativist epicenter than with the Tea Party Patriots messaging. Left to their own devices, these local chapters have gravitated towards the racially charged nativism.
True the Vote
Even the Tea Party voter suppression group, True the Vote, exposed in an IREHR report last October, is getting into the fight. It has argued that the immigration bill could be used for “voter fraud.” In a fundraising email the group declared, “The currently proposed ‘Gang of Eight’ bill for immigration reform uses loopholes and cloudy ‘legalese’ to create what looks like a golden opportunity for the growing vote fraud cabal to undermine our electoral system.”
They warned that “Leftists would like nothing better than to be able to take advantage of more liberal residency requirements and national ID laws to swamp voting places with millions of fraudulent voters.” [Emphasis in original] And even pleaded “help us fight back and stop this immigration bill from serving as a “Trojan Horse” for every ACORN-like group in the country.”
The Sound of Silence – FreedomWorks
FreedomWorks, one of the largest Tea Party factions, is conspicuously silent on the immigration bill, perhaps due to the group’s history of flip-flops on the issue. As IREHR documented in Tea Party Nationalism, when the Tea Party movement took off, some groups attacked Dick Armey, the chair of FreedomWorks, for being "soft on immigration." In February 2011, FreedomWorks turned 180 degrees on the issue. They launched a new Freedom Connector website, which opened the floodgates to nativist activity, promoting a slew of anti-immigrant Tea Party events.
2. “Kicking the Can Down the Road”
Also known as “the Stall.” Be on guard for efforts to slow down or delay immigration reform as its opponents hope that it will go away or recede as an issue–until the 2014 election can change the composition of the Senate.
Early signs of the dither tactic are already emerging. Last week House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) declined to commit to finishing immigration legislation this year. "I’m going to be very cautious about setting any kind of arbitrary limits on when this has to be done," Goodlatte noted at a press conference to announce the House way forward on reform.
Goodlatte is an anti-immigrant hardliner. He is an active member of the nativist House Immigration Reform Caucus and supported many of the harshest pieces of anti-immigrant legislation including the SAFE Act, the HALT Act, and the CLEAR Act. If he digs in, it could be difficult for House Speaker John Boehner to get any immigration bill out of that chamber.
On the Senate side, Senator Rand Paul, who took considerable heat from Tea Party activists for voicing some early support for immigration reform efforts, used the Boston Marathon bombing to try and slow the process. “We should not proceed until we understand the specific failures of our immigration system,” Paul wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The influential nativist group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), endorsed the stall tactic. “Make a call today and ask your Senator to slow down the process and read S. 744, the Gang of Eight bill!” implored a May 1 FAIR email blast.
In addition to potentially stopping any potential for immigration reform this year, slowing things down allows opponents an opportunity to mount a counter offensive.
3. “Death by a Thousand Cuts”
If opponents can’t grind the bill to a halt, they’re also preparing to slice-and-dice the legislation until it’s unrecognizable to human rights supporters.
This process is already underway in the Senate, as the New York Times reported on May 9. In the House, opponents plan to split the legislation into multiple pieces. Goodlatte noted that no official decisions have been made on how he will proceed with the variety of proposals that will be introduced (border security, workplace enforcement, etc.). He does plan on bringing up separate bills on two components: E-Verify and a new temporary agricultural worker program.
This slice-and-dice approach allows opponents in the House Republicans to say the voted for immigration reform, but not having to vote for a balanced approach that would provide legalization to undocumented immigrants.
Such an outcome appears to be fine with Congressman Goodlatte. He’s on record noting that he does not favor a “special pathway to citizenship,” but rather a way to give undocumented immigrants “some kind of legal status.” He does not have any proposal prepared that would address citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Such a maneuver could result in draconian enforcement measures, while leaving eleven million undocumented immigrants still in the shadows.
4. “Death Panel”-type distortion
As Tea Partiers and nativist groups work to mobilize their supporters to kill immigration reform, lookout for the tactic honed during the health care debate – intentionally misrepresenting the content of the legislation to scare the public.
During the fight over the Affordable Care Act, Tea Partiers and their allies like Sarah Palin perpetuated the “death panel” myth – the idea that a provision buried deep in the bill created a panel of bureaucrats who would decide whether older Americans were worthy of medical care. Though the argument was thoroughly debunked (it was even PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year”), by the height of the debate 41% of Americans believed this lie. It imperiled passage of the law, and still has an impact on public opinion about that program.
Tea Partiers are hunkered down, crowdsourcing their hunt for their immigration version of the death panel. On April 17, the Tea Party Patriots announced the creation of a small army of grassroots volunteers to dig through the eight hundred pages of the first draft of the Senate’s bi-partisan immigration bill proposal. “In short, we want you to expose this legislation, whatever it is,” noted the organization’s web appeal for volunteers.
Absent specific attacks yet, both the established nativist groups and most of the Tea Party factions have fallen back on the well-worn “amnesty” trope—supposedly rewarding law-breakers and encouraging more undocumented immigration. The 1776 Tea Party, Patriot Action Network, Tea Party Nation, TheTeaParty.net, and hundreds of the local chapters aligned with Tea Party Patriots use the argument extensively.
5. The Sell-Out
Should any of these tactics gain traction and stall momentum for comprehensive immigration reform, prepare for some supposed immigration reform liberals to jettison core principles in favor of a “deal.” Even before debate begins, some are already tossing values overboard and trying to lower expectations over the immigration bill. The American Prospect, for example, has already suggested that lesbian and gay immigrants may have to “sit this one out” and “take one for the team” if “reform is to succeed.”
These comments come despite all the efforts of LGBT organizations engaged in the push for reform. The move potentially undermines years of hard work that have gone into building alliances and coalitions between LGBT groups and immigrant rights organizations, such as the outstanding work done by groups like CAUSA and the Rural Organizing Project.
Before the intensity ratchets up and the heat of the moment is upon us, it’s important to remember that at the core, this fight is not about specific bits of immigration policy reform, it’s about the values that define who and what we are as a nation. What we’re fighting for is as important as how we fight. IREHR will continue to closely watch these and other trends in the coming days.