From Berlin to Washington
Berlin -- Everyone, it seemed, was talking about it. The week before, France's immigrant-hating populist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had shocked the world by winning one in five votes to take second place in the initial round of presidential elections.
Now, a million people were in the streets of France, and tens of thousands of others rallied in cities around Europe, to decry the racist xenophobia and violence that were infecting country after European country.
Seen from Berlin, where officials from the Southern Poverty Law Center and other U.S.-based organizations were meeting to discuss tactics with their counterparts in German anti-racist organizations, the tableau was ominous.
- The anti-foreigner Danish People's Party won 12% of the national vote last November.
- In recent national elections in Austria and Switzerland, far-right anti-immigrant parties won 27% and 23% of the vote, respectively.
- Similar parties have done remarkably well recently in Italy, Norway, Romania, the Netherlands and even Britain, where a tiny neofascist party won three local seats in April.
"The ultranationalist, xenophobic right is manifestly on the rise, and not just in France," Tony Judt, director of New York University's Remarque Institute, wrote recently.
But, correctly predicting Le Pen's rout in a second round of voting, Judt noted that the extreme right still does not dominate any European government.
The same is certainly true in the United States, where Patrick Buchanan, running on a similarly nativist plank, garnered a tiny fraction of the national vote in the 2000 presidential elections.
But just as in Europe, where mainstream parties have clearly been pushed to the right on immigration issues by their extremist rivals, there are strong signs in Washington, D.C., that extremists are gaining influence.
More importantly, the magazine's probe shows that many of the groups in this network are increasingly tied to openly white supremacist organizations, like the Council of Conservative Citizens, and that simultaneously, they are gaining power in Washington, especially in the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus.
In February, the caucus' leader, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), welcomed a group of anti-immigration activists from the Tanton network, warning them of a global plot to erode American sovereignty.
Re-energized by Tancredo's words and the Sept. 11 attacks that boosted xenophobic fears among Americans, the activists went on to lobby a large number of both congressmen and senators.
Was their influence important? On March 12, a month after the lobbying trip that began with the gathering in Tancredo's offices, Tancredo led a push that fell just one vote short of defeating President Bush's plan to allow some illegal immigrants to remain in the United States while they apply for visas.
Opponents of Bush's plan credited the efforts of the anti-immigration groups for the near-defeat. (The bill remained in limbo at press time.)
A month later, Tancredo defied his party by harshly and publicly criticizing Bush for his immigration stance, suggesting that his alleged "open borders" policy was an invitation to new terrorist attacks.
The Democratic Debate
The issue of immigration restriction is attractive to many politicians in the wake of Sept. 11 —so attractive that Tancredo's caucus, with just 10 members prior to the terrorist strikes, had reached a total of 59 by May.
At the same time, opinion polls consistently show that most Americans support some kind of restriction.
Tancredo's caucus does not inspire confidence. Its web page now carries links to the leading groups in the Tanton network, including some whose officials have recently joined the Council of Conservative Citizens —a group whose Web page recently described blacks as "a retrograde species of humanity."
The danger is not that immigration will be debated, or possibly even restricted —despite the strong support for immigration of Bush and leading business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Clearly, these are matters for debate by the citizens of a democratic society.
Rather, from Berlin to Paris to the halls of power in Washington, D.C., the important question is whether the debate will be animated by democratic values or colored by racism and intolerance.