Essay: The Anti-Immigrant Movement

By Heidi Beirich

Since the late 1990s, the United States has experienced an explosive rise in nativism, or anti-immigrant sentiment, to a level of intensity not seen in nearly a century. This nativist backlash has been fueled by demographic changes resulting largely from an influx of Latino immigrants and by projections that whites will make up less than half the U.S. population by 2042. Hundreds of anti-immigrant groups have sprung up in all parts of the country, especially since 2005.

Though a nation of immigrants, nativist backlashes have occurred many times in American history, perhaps most notably in the 1920s. At that time, the Ku Klux Klan had as many as 4 million members and recruited largely on the basis of anti-Catholic (and, more specifically, anti-Irish and anti-Italian) sentiment. The anti-immigrant movement of the period ultimately resulted in the passage of the racist Immigration Act of 1924, which outlawed all Asian immigration and instituted national origin quotas favoring Northern European immigrants. The act stood until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act finally abolished the national origin quota system that had sharply limited the number of non-white immigrants.

Today’s anti-immigrant movement has Latin Americans in its sights. Nativist groups contend, with little and no empirical evidence to back them up, that Latin American immigrants contribute disproportionately to a host of societal ills – from poverty and inner city decay to crime, urban sprawl and environmental degradation. Nativists view Latinos as destroying American society and replacing it with an uncivilized and inferior foreign culture. Many also believe there is a secret plot by the Mexican government and American Latinos to wrest the Southwest away from the United States in order to create “Aztlan,” a Latino nation.

The most important modern nativist and the founder of many of the movement’s key contemporary organizations is a Michigan ophthalmologist by the name of John Tanton. Interestingly, Tanton came to immigration issues from the left. A Sierra Club activist starting in the late 1960s and a backer of Planned Parenthood, Tanton was highly concerned with population growth in the United States and, for a time, headed the Sierra Club’s Population Committee. By the late 1970s, Tanton had decided that immigration was a root cause of most environmental degradation. He also became increasingly concerned about its effects on American culture and society, a thought process that led him to racial concerns.

In the late 1970s, Tanton began to build a multi-organizational movement. He laid out his strategy in 1986 in secret memos, called the WITAN memos, that proposed, among other things, the creation of multiple think tanks to focus on the negative effects of immigration. He also suggested, in somewhat oblique language, a takeover of the Sierra Club by nativists.

Through his foundation U.S. Inc., Tanton channeled thousands of dollars to several organizations that sought to restrict immigration. In addition, the foundation has run several anti-immigrant programs itself, including The Social Contract Press (listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), Pro English and, until 2002, NumbersUSA, perhaps the most important grassroots nativist organization. In 1979, Tanton founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group. Because of its ties to white supremacists and the beliefs of Tanton, the SPLC designated FAIR as a hate group in 2007. 

Unfortunately for Tanton, the WITAN memos, which he shared with the leaders of FAIR, were leaked to The Arizona Republic in 1988. The memos – the first public indication of Tanton’s racism – were riddled with bigoted statements. In them, Tanton demeaned Catholics and questioned the “educability” of Latinos. Several prominent figures, including newsman Walter Cronkite and conservative Republican Linda Chavez, left their positions at Tanton’s U.S. English, where he then served as chairman, after the disclosures. Tanton, too, quit the group amid a storm of negative publicity. But that didn’t deter his ambition to spark a crackdown on immigration. Between 1980 and 2002, Tanton had a hand in either the founding or the funding of 13 anti-immigration groups, many of them well known. And he remained the leader of FAIR until the early 1990s. He now sits on FAIR’s board.

Tanton has openly said that one of his main inspirations for taking on immigration was The Camp of the Saints, a 1973 French novel that lays out a lurid vision of dark-skinned, Third World hordes destroying European civilization. Tanton’s publishing outfit, The Social Contract Press (TSCP), continues to sell the book, calling it “gripping.” A 1994 edition of the book published by Tanton’s TSCP carried an afterword from author Jean Raspail claiming that the “proliferation of other races dooms our race … to extinction.” When it was published, Tanton wrote that he was “honored” to republish it. “We are indebted to Jean Raspail for his insights into the human condition,” Tanton wrote, “and for being 20 years ahead of his time. History will judge him more kindly than have some of his contemporaries.”

In 2009, the SPLC’s Intelligence Report published a report revealing a great deal more about Tanton’s racial extremism that was based on Tanton’s private correspondence, which he had lodged in the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library. Tanton’s letters showed, among other things, that he has for decades been at the heart of the white nationalist scene. He has corresponded with Holocaust deniers, former Klan lawyers and the leading white nationalist thinkers of the era. He introduced key FAIR leaders to the president of the Pioneer Fund, a white supremacist foundation set up to encourage “race betterment,” at a 1997 meeting at a private club. He wrote a major funder to encourage her to read the work of a radical anti-Semitic professor – to “give you a new understanding of the Jewish outlook on life” – and suggested that the entire FAIR board discuss the professor’s theories on the Jews. He revered John Trevor Sr., the principal architect of the Immigration Act of 1924 and a rabid anti-Semite whose pro-Nazi American Coalition of Patriotic Societies reportedly was indicted for sedition in 1942.

Tanton shared his racist ideas with leaders of the many projects he funded. In 1996, for example, he wrote Roy Beck, head of the immigration restrictionist group NumbersUSA (and then an employee of Tanton’s U.S. Inc.), questioning whether Latinos were capable of governing California. “I have no doubt that individual minority persons can assimilate to the culture necessary to run an advanced society,” Tanton said in his letter to Beck, “but if through mass migration, the culture of the homeland is transplanted from Latin America to California, then my guess is we will see the same degree of success with governmental and social institutions that we have seen in Latin America.” Referring to the changing California public schools, Tanton wondered “whether the minorities who are going to inherit California (85% of the lower-grade school children are now ‘minorities’ — demography is destiny) can run an advanced society?”

In the late 1990s, a time of relatively high levels of Latino immigration into the United States, populist anti-immigrant anger began spreading across the nation. In 1998, a revealing rally occurred in the small town of Cullman, Ala., where a protest was held featuring the burning of both Mexican and United Nations flags. While the rally was attended by only a few people, it included top officials of groups that had previously been thought of as mainstream — including FAIR and the California Coalition for Immigration Reform — together with an unrobed Klansman. The mix showed how racism informed the movement from the very start.

Two years later, nativist activity began to take off along Arizona’s southern border, specifically in Cochise County. Ranch owners Roger and Donald Barnett drew national publicity as they complained of undocumented workers crossing their land. (In earlier years, illegal border crossings had been concentrated in the far more populated border areas of Texas and California, but that changed with federal efforts to sew up those borders. One result has been a sharp uptick in the exposure deaths of border crossers because of the rigors of walking through the Sonora Desert.) The Barnetts boasted of rounding up thousands of migrants at gunpoint and handing them over to the authorities. The brothers – who were lauded as heroes by most immigration-restriction groups – even took reporters from around the world on weekend “missions” to “hunt” their human prey. Their activities caught the attention of two prominent California anti-immigrant activists: Barbara Coe of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform and Glenn Spencer, head of American Patrol (both groups have been listed as anti-immigrant hate groups by the SPLC since 2001). Coe and Spencer had earlier played critical roles in drawing up and successfully campaigning for Proposition 187, a referendum on a proposed harsh anti-immigrant measure in California. It was later repudiated by the courts.

In May 2000, Coe and Spencer played key roles in a major gathering of anti-immigration activists held in Sierra Vista, Ariz., to celebrate the Barnetts’ armed vigilantism. More than 250 people showed up to hear Coe rail against “alien savages.” Coe told her audience that every would-be immigrant caught at the border would be “one less illegal alien bringing in communicable diseases, one less illegal alien smuggling deadly drugs, one less illegal alien gang member to rob, rape and murder innocent U.S. citizens.” Adding his voice to Coe’s, Spencer showed his lurid videotape, “Immigration: Threatening the Bonds of Our Union,” which outlined an imaginary Latino conspiracy to “reconquer” the Southwest for Mexico. (In 1999, Spencer sent copies of his video to every member of Congress. Hand-delivering them was Bettina McCann – then fiancée of the neo-Nazi National Alliance’s “military coordinator.”)

Spencer and Coe weren’t the only hard-liners there. So were members of former Klan leader David Duke’s latest organization, then called the National Organization for European American Rights, and unrobed members of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Klan fliers were placed on cars outside the event, just in case any of the participants hadn’t yet realized the high interest being evinced by openly racist groups.

Around the turn of the millennium, several other hate groups besides the Klan jumped on the anti-immigrant bandwagon. Particularly important in this respect was the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), a white supremacist hate group that took up the immigration issue in the late 1990s. In July 1999, the CCC organized an immigration panel at its semi-annual conference, held that summer in Washington, D.C. Speaking at the conference, where books with titles like The Aryan Race were offered for sale, were some emerging luminaries of the anti-immigrant right: Glenn Spencer and Wayne Lutton, an employee of Tanton’s foundation, U.S. Inc.

A whole new sector of the anti-immigrant movement opened up in April 2005 when the first Minuteman Project border watch was held. Organized by Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox, a kindergarten teacher-turned-Wild West gunfight re-enactor, the original meeting in Cochise County consisted of a month-long “civilian border patrol” operation. It mustered a few hundred volunteers, garnered international media hype and inspired a slew of ragtag imitators whose militant rhetoric and confrontational methods rapidly exceeded Gilchrist’s original vision of retirees in lawn chairs keeping a leisurely eye on the border. In ensuing years, more than 300 new Minuteman-type groups would appear around the nation.

Some of these groups were relatively benign, engaging in public rallies or other democratic exercises aimed at restricting or ending immigration. But a growing percentage adopted hardball tactics, targeting people suspected of being undocumented workers or Americans trying to hire them for personal harassment. A typical example of these harder-line organizsations, listed by the SPLC as “nativist extremist” groups, is the San Diego Minutemen, whose members have engaged in threatening confrontations with Latino day laborers and others.

Many of these harder-line groups, including the Minuteman Project, conduct armed “citizen border patrols.” Others confront Latino immigrants congregated at day labor centers or informal roadside pick-up sites. Some conduct surveillance of apartment houses, private homes or encampments where homeless immigrants live. Almost all of them disseminate vicious, immigrant-bashing propaganda. Like other movements on the radical right, nativist extremist groups are rife with infighting, ego clashes and allegations of fraud leveled by former allies. Even so, the SPLC counted 173 such groups in 2009, up from 144 in 2006.

In May 2009, leaders of a nativist extremist group known as Minuteman American Defense (MAD) moved past the confrontational tactics typical of the movement. MAD head Shawna Forde, operations director Jason Eugene “Gunny” Bush and member Albert Robert Gaxiola were charged in the murders of a Latino man and his daughter who were living near the Arizona-Mexico border. According to authorities, the three broke into a trailer in the border town of Arivaca. They planned the home invasion because they thought that they would find drugs and cash to fund their group’s operation. Bush allegedly shot 29-year old Raul Flores, his wife and their 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia. Raul and Brisenia were killed, but Flores’ wife survived and returned fire. Forde was no stranger to the Minuteman movement. She had served as an official in Gilchrist’s Minuteman Project and also had spent time on Glenn Spencer’s border compound.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the anti-immigrant movement is the support it has enjoyed in some quarters of the mainstream media. Lou Dobbs, who until late 2009 hosted his own daily CNN program, railed incessantly at immigrants in his “Broken Borders” segments. Dobbs repeatedly defamed immigrants on his program, issuing false propaganda about such things as immigrants and disease, immigrant incarceration rates and how immigrants affect the economy. Dobbs also spread anti-Latino conspiracy theories, including the Aztlán theory, on his show. Dobbs went beyond verbally attacking immigrants on CNN. In 2008 and 2009, he headlined a “radio row” against immigration organized by the anti-immigrant hate group FAIR. In July 2009, Dobbs’ fear-mongering led SPLC President Richard Cohen to call on CNN to fire him. The following November, Dobbs left CNN after a concerted grassroots campaign by many progressive and civil rights organizations.

Dobbs has not been alone in injecting anti-immigrant vitriol into the mainstream. Similar views have been expressed by a host of other cable commentators, radio talk show hosts and elected officials.

In 2007, the political power of the anti-immigrant movement was felt in Washington. An attempt to pass legislation to reform the immigration system – supported by a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and key Republicans, including then President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona – collapsed after a massive show of force by nativist organizations and their supporters. Nativists also had a significant impact on the 2008 GOP primaries by demanding that candidates support strict immigration controls. Though McCain, who had earlier supported immigration reform, prevailed in the primaries, a significant divide over the issue continues to affect GOP politics.        

Heidi Beirich is the director of research and special projects for the Southern Poverty Law Center.