As Immigration Debate Heats Up, Keep Out the Extremists

The nation is abuzz with talk of immigration reform. Following an election in which Latino voters played a critical role, members of Congress from both parties, the president and even certain conservative pundits have called for reform.

Not everyone, of course, is thrilled. But, as the immigration debate heats up, we must be mindful of who participates in the discussion. And media outlets, their audience and elected officials must not allow extremists to drive the conversation; hate groups and their allies, who have harmed our nation, should not receive a platform.

Debate should not be hijacked by those embracing debunked race science and peddling fear of demographic change under the guise of impartial policy analysis.

— Daniel Altschuler

After years when Republican intransigence made immigration reform politically impossible, a bipartisan group of senators released principles last month, including a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. The president followed with a speech endorsing reform.

Public reactions have been diverse.

Immigrant rights organizations and unions have applauded that progress is being made, while expressing alarm that the proposed path to citizenship would be contingent upon further border security.

Business leaders, who typically embrace immigration reform as good for the bottom line, also seem pleased. Still, some sectors, including agriculture, have expressed concern over workplace electronic verification of immigration status, due to the potential for costly errors.

Meanwhile, those traditionally opposed to any legalization, including House Republicans like Lamar Smith, denounced the released principles as “amnesty” that “rewards lawbreakers.”

Fueling the restrictionist chorus are three organizations: the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and Numbers USA, who have long opposed legalization measures.

These groups are frequently quoted in major media outlets, but their views are far from mainstream. Instead, as the anti-racist Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has found, FAIR is a hate group, while Numbers USA and CIS are closely aligned to it through the network of well-known bigot John Tanton.

Tanton formed FAIR in 1979 because of fears that immigration fuels overpopulation. His goal: to limit immigration by any means necessary. In the meantime, he and FAIR president Dan Stein were quoted as variously opposing a “Latino onslaught” (Tanton), supporting the need for “a European-American majority” (Tanton) and decrying many Central Americans as “hating America” (Stein). Tanton once wrote: “Can homo contraceptivus [meaning whites] compete with homo progenitiva [meaning Latinos] if borders aren’t controlled?”

These ideological roots, coupled with Tanton, Stein and FAIR’s associations with eugenicists and extremist groups, led the SPLC to identify it as a hate group.

Tanton sought greater legitimacy for his fringe views by creating CIS, arguing that “We need to get CIS fully-funded and entrenched as a major Washington think tank, one that can venture into issues which FAIR is not yet ready to raise.”

CIS, like FAIR, has gained a wide audience for its half-baked research, which inevitably concludes that immigration should be radically limited and that undocumented immigrants should be rounded up and deported, irrespective of human and economic costs.

The story is similar for Numbers USA. Led by Roy Beck, long-standing Tanton ally and former editor of Tanton’s racist journal, Numbers USA was also incubated by FAIR and Tanton.

The Tanton network has heavily influenced the immigration debate. Having learned to avoid publicly espousing the racist views behind their formation, these groups use less racialized messages to gain traction and have built a national network of supporters capable of action. For instance, Numbers USA’s widespread mobilization of calls and faxes into Congress helped thwart comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. And FAIR’s legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), has been behind many legislative efforts to crack down on immigrants in states like Arizona and Alabama.

Tanton’s network has had dire consequences. In Suffolk County, New York, where my organization works to increase civic participation among immigrants, FAIR provided organizing support to anti-immigrant efforts that created a climate of fear in which hate crimes became rampant. This culminated in the hate murder of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero.

We cannot let Tanton’s network divert public debate again. While we must respect freedom of speech, journalists and policymakers examining immigration do not have to ask for these organizations’ opinions. Debate should not be hijacked by those embracing debunked race science and peddling fear of demographic change under the guise of impartial policy analysis.

Reasonable people disagree on much about immigration reform: How should we determine how many future immigrants to accept? What is the right balance between family- and employment-based visas? How much enforcement is enough given scarce resources?

These tough questions require vigorous debate about values and economics, but not input from groups driven by a thinly veiled agenda of hate and fear. It’s time that we stop inviting the Tanton network to the table.