03/2011

Attacking the Constitution: State Legislators for Legal Immigration & the Anti-Immigrant Movement

Gay people are the "death knell" of America. The Confederacy fought for "individual liberties." One-world government, as predicted in the Book of Revelation, is around the corner. The federal government knew about the Oklahoma City bombing before it happened. President Obama is a secret Muslim and not an American citizen. The babies of undocumented immigrants are a "poison." State troopers should confine immigrants to special ghettoes. A federal agency has secretly built a series of concentration camps for patriotic Americans.

These are just some of the radical-right beliefs of a dozen leading members of State Legislators for Legal Immigration (SLLI), a four-year-old organization that specializes in mounting legislative attacks on immigrants in states around the country. SLLI is now working feverishly to end the 14th Amendment's promise of birthright citizenship. Passed in the aftermath of the Civil War, the amendment guarantees that all persons born in this country and subject to its jurisdiction are citizens of the United States as well as the state in which they live.

SLLI's Dirty Dozen
State Legislators for Legal Immigration members

This assault on the 14th Amendment is only the latest volley from an angry nativist movement that has been surging for about a decade. Populist anger over the issue of immigration has helped the number of hate groups expand by more than 65% since 2000 and also has fueled the appearance of hundreds of vigilante civilian border patrol groups. Now, SLLI is taking a leading role in fostering xenophobic intolerance in statehouses across the nation.

The group, founded in 2007, attributes to "illegal aliens" what it describes as "[i]ncreasingly documented incidences of homicide, identity theft, property theft, serious infectious diseases, drug running, gang violence, human trafficking, terrorism and growing cost to taxpayers." Its founder, Republican Pennsylvania State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, writes on SLLI's website that "the personal and economic safety" of all Americans is threatened by "the ongoing invasion of illegal aliens" and compares the situation to that facing the settlers during the American Revolution.

There is nothing in SLLI's simpleminded materials that suggests any possible benefit from immigrants, despite widespread agreement among economists that they help grow the economy on behalf of all Americans. And there is nothing that even hints at any human cost to trying to throw some 11 million men, women and children out of the country. And there is no recognition of the fact that scholarly studies show clearly that immigrants are on average much less criminal than native-born Americans.

Metcalfe is a nativist hard-liner who has railed long and hard against "anchor babies," a pejorative term suggesting that undocumented parents have children in this country in order to later use them to secure citizenship for themselves. He has said that immigrant parents "live the life of a criminal" and should have their children taken away.

So it was no surprise when, in announcing their attack on the 14th Amendment at a press conference this January, SLLI officials said "hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens are crossing U.S. borders to give birth or exploit their child" to obtain citizenship. But this incendiary allegation was clearly refuted by a contemporaneous Pew Hispanic Center study showing that the vast majority of children of undocumented parents were born at least a year after their parents arrived.

It also seems ridiculous on its face. The reality is that a baby born to undocumented parents here would have to wait until he or she was 21 to sponsor their parents for citizenship, and the parents would have to first return to their native country for 10 years in order to qualify. Confronted with the Pew study, Metcalfe stuck doggedly to his guns. "Whether it's thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands that are born here, it's still a major incentive," he told USA Today.

Metcalfe's right-wing vitriol isn't limited to immigrants. He has denounced his state's Domestic Violence Awareness Month as part of the "homosexual agenda," asserted that veterans who believe in global warming are leftist traitors, and cast doubt on President Obama's citizenship.

There's more. SLLI highlights the fact that it has a "working partnership" with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) since 2007 for its white nationalist agenda and ties to racist groups. FAIR has been working for some three decades to, in the words of its founder John Tanton, preserve "a European-American majority, and a clear one at that." FAIR President Dan Stein has made similar statements. In an oral history housed in a university library, Stein raged at the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended a 40-year-old racist quota system. In signing the law, President Lyndon B. Johnson had celebrated the idea that the national origins quota system "will never again shadow the gate to the American dream with …. prejudice." But Stein saw it differently, saying the new law was a "key mistake" in U.S. policy forced on the country by "revengists" who sought "to retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance."

SLLI members rely on FAIR to produce model legislation for them to use at the state level, as FAIR did in the case of Arizona's highly controversial S.B. 1070, the harshly anti-immigrant law that was passed last year and is now stalled in the courts, where its constitutionality has been challenged by the Obama Administration. In fact, FAIR lawyers Michael Hethmon and Kris Kobach (the principal author of the Arizona statute) joined this January's SLLI press conference. (An SPLC report published just this February — "When Mr. Kobach Comes to Town: Nativist Laws & the Communities They Damage" — detailed the financial, racial and economic wreckage caused by Kobach's laws in Arizona and elsewhere.)

The nativist descriptions of foreign "invaders" bearing all kinds of social ills that come from the likes of Daryl Metcalfe and FAIR are hardly new in America. Similar attacks on the disfavored groups of the moment have marked our history from the very beginning.

During the 1866 debate on the 14th Amendment, for example, Sen. Edgar Cowan of Metcalfe's home state of Pennsylvania raged against the idea of children of Chinese immigrants and Gypsies – the "anchor babies" of yesteryear – becoming citizens by virtue of being born here. He argued that citizenship should be preserved for "people of my own blood and lineage, people of the same religion, people of the same beliefs and traditions." He warned against "a flood of immigration of the Mongol race" and of the country being "invaded," not just by Gypsies — "trespassers" and "swindle[rs]," in Cowan's view — but by "people from Borneo, man-eaters or cannibals, if you please."

Sen. John Conness of California rose in defense of the amendment. He conceded that "it may be very good capital in an electioneering campaign to declaim against the Chinese." But he pointed out that they were an "industrious people … now passing from mining into other branches of industry," including farming and the "building [of] the Pacific railroad." Their children and those of Gypsies born in this country should be "regarded as citizens of the United States," he said. No person "claiming to have a high humanity," he argued, could take a contrary position.

Sen. Conness carried the day. Congress voted to propose the 14th Amendment with its birthright citizenship clause in summer of 1866, and the requisite number of states ratified it two years later. Xenophobic fears and the demonization of those who are different, however, have never been completely quelled. This time around, it isn't Gypsies who concern nativists like the lawmakers who make up SLLI. But it's still another verse of the same old song.

SLLI's members — some 65 men and women — come from 40 states.  But they are hardly representative of the country's racial and ethnic mix.  And though most may not sound as radical as Metcalfe and some of his colleagues, they all have signed on to an attempt to eviscerate a great constitutional guarantee, one forged in the aftermath of the nation's bloodiest war.  In the words of well-known conservative Linda Chavez, the attempt amounts to "a fool's errand that will do great damage to the Republican Party."

What follows are short profiles of a dozen of SLLI's more outspoken members — men and women from Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Washington, four of whom hold leadership positions in their legislatures — whose radicalism gives a sense of just how far from the mainstream the group's goals really are. None of the 12 lawmakers replied to requests for comment for this report.

The author of this report was Research Director Heidi Beirich, with extensive contributions by researchers Evelyn Schlatter and Janet Smith. It was edited by Intelligence Project Director Mark Potok and designed by Design Director Russell Estes.