After five years of growth, the anti-immigrant movement drops precipitously, a victim of infighting and mainstream co-optation.
The number of “nativist extremist” groups fell by almost half last year, with much of the vigilante anti-immigration movement collapsing under the weight of bad press, organizational disarray, and the co-optation of the movement’s concerns by state legislatures passing draconian legislation targeting foreigners.
It was a remarkable development, coming after five years of rapid growth. Most of the energy that once animated the anti-immigrant movement seems today to have moved into the political mainstream, where Republicans and Tea Partiers have competed with one another to craft ever-harsher nativist laws.
Launched in 2005 with a provocative border watch in Cochise County, Ariz., the first of the major nativist extremist groups — the Minuteman Project — drew hundreds of activists, many of them armed, who sought to detain undocumented immigrants and turn them over to the Border Patrol. Gun-toting grandmothers in lawn chairs at the border made for good TV and the Minuteman Project turned its founders, Chris Simcox and Jim Gilchrist, into media stars of a sort.
Simcox and Gilchrist’s activities spawned a major movement, propelling the rise of other nativist extremist organizations across the U.S. These groups did not limit themselves to pushing for legislative change or better border enforcement, but actually targeted individuals — people they believed had crossed the border illegally or who were seeking work at migrant labor hiring sites. At one point, then-President George Bush characterized them as “vigilante” groups because of such activities.
By 2007, just two years after the Minuteman Project’s founding, the nativist extremist movement had grown to 144 groups in 39 states. In 2009, the movement exploded, with the groups skyrocketing to 309 from 173, a single-year jump of almost 80%. Then, in 2010, the movement hit an all-time high, with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) counting 319 active groups.
Last year, five years of rapid growth came to an abrupt end. The SPLC counted just 185 nativist extremist groups that were operational in 2011, a one-year drop of 42%. Most of the surviving groups are part of a single large coalition, the Federal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Coalition (FIRE). The most important Minuteman groups — the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC) and the Minuteman Project (MMP) — have all but collapsed. In 2010, MCDC had 77 chapters and MMP had 38. By the end of 2011, there were only two MCDC chapters and eight MMP chapters left.
One key event that propelled collapse of the Minuteman groups came in 2009, when former Minuteman Shawna Forde and two accomplices murdered a Latino man and his 9-year-old daughter in Arivaca, Ariz. Forde had been a member various Minuteman groups and was arrested while leaving the compound of a particularly vicious anti-immigrant group, American Border Patrol. In February 2011, Forde was sentenced to death in the execution-style killings, a verdict that drew heavy media attention and soured support for vigilante border watchers.
At around the same time as the double murder, the two main Minuteman groups — MCDC and MMP — began to splinter amid vicious infighting. Prominent activists started moving into the nascent Tea Party movement as well as the significantly more radical antigovernment “Patriot” movement. Both Tea Partiers and Patriots increasingly began to take up nativist concerns.
Today, border-watching has fallen off and become the nearly exclusive domain of unvarnished haters. Arizona neo-Nazis J.T. Ready and Harry Hughes, activists tied to the National Socialist Movement (NSM), took up the Minuteman cause two years ago and started patrolling Arizona’s Vekol Valley for migrants, an activity that has continued. In January 2011, another NSM member, Jeffery Harbin, was arrested for building homemade pipe bombs that he intended to supply to border vigilantes. He pleaded guilty to making and transporting bombs later in the year, drawing a five-year prison sentence.
In many ways, the major Minuteman factions did themselves in, with ill-advised public remarks, tooth-and-nail infighting, and a series of embarrassing disclosures.
In 2010, allegations in court documents surfaced that Chris Simcox — arguably the highest profile individual in the movement, the man who co-founded the Minuteman Project in 2005 and, later, founded MCDC — had threatened to kill his wife and family in a 2009 domestic dispute. It turned out that a restraining order had been issued against Simcox in April of that year, when his third wife, Alena, filed for divorce. This was not the first time that Simcox had been accused of violent behavior by a spouse. His second wife told the Intelligence Report in 2005 that she had filed for full custody of their teenage son because she feared Simcox, who she described as having violent outbursts, had suffered a mental breakdown.
Also in 2010, MCDC was dealing with the wreckage of moves by Simcox successor Carmen Mercer, who had spent the prior year shutting, then reopening, and finally shutting the group down except for its website. Mercer, who Arizona officials had accused in a tax scheme in 2009, didn’t help matters when she sent out a provocative E-mail in 2010. In it, she urged supporters to bring long guns to the border to “forcefully engage” the “criminals” crossing without documents. She later retracted those statements, but, by last year, MCDC’s Web forums, once lively discussion spaces for activists, showed virtually no activity. Its border-watching activities seem to have completely ended.
MCDC also appears to have fallen under the control of far-right activist Alan Keyes, whose interests go well beyond immigration, and seems to have lost its focus as a result. For the last two years, MCDC, always essentially an Arizona entity, has given its headquarters address as Herndon, Va., and it sends those wishing to contact it to Keyes’ fundraising entity, the Declaration Alliance.
The alliance had long raised money for MCDC and still runs the Minuteman PAC. Last year, that PAC sent out several fundraising E-mails that had little to do with immigration. One asked for backing for the efforts by Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio to “investigate” President Obama’s birth certificate. The PAC also took up the fight against Muslims and the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” last year and now has a project called “Third Jihad Watch” dedicated to guarding against the “imminent domestic terrorism threat” from radical Muslims and supposed attempts to impose Shariah law on the U.S.
The nativist extremist group Americans for Legal Immigration PAC (ALIPAC) fell on hard times in 2011, too. The group’s leader, William Gheen, sent out a desperate E-mail for funds in early December, blaming the “authoritarian and dictatorial actions of Obama” for ALIPAC’s budget shortfall. More likely, Gheen’s troubles are related to widely condemned racist statements he made in August. Gheen said then that in order to save “white America,” it might be necessary to engage in “extra-political activities that I can’t really talk about because they’re all illegal and violent.” Under pressure, Gheen later retracted his remarks.
The San Diego Minutemen, arguably the most obnoxious of the country’s nativist extremist groups, has also disintegrated in the last year. Jeff Schwilk, who was best known for tearing down migrant labor camps and attacking fellow activists, left the group for the Tea Party movement. Earlier, a website appeared harshly criticizing Schwilk’s leadership and mocking him, most dramatically with a photo of him wearing a woman’s bikini in a hot tub.
The group now appears to be led by Jim Betz, and is only involved in litter removal on California freeways. Betz told the San Diego Union Tribune last summer that he blamed the bad economy, not bad leadership, for SDMM’s problems. “The membership has declined greatly. … One reason, the easy one, is the economy and the cost of getting out” to distant border areas.
Things have worked out a little better for Gilchrist’s MMP, though that group, too, suffered from vicious infighting that included lawsuits and countersuits between Gilchrist and his former board members, mainly over money squabbles. Though Gilchrist eventually prevailed, the group declined, with active chapters today only in California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Texas and Utah, Gilchrist told the Report. As of late 2011, it was no longer involved in border watch efforts.
Gilchrist also told the Report that infighting had killed the movement he helped create. “Rampant selfish and immature infighting among certain groups … the disruption and detraction from the immigration issue caused by the jealousy, the greed, and mutual acrimony created by these sources essentially ‘thinned the herd’ of interest in the issue by many citizens (and legal residents) and by political representatives and candidates who could not give serious credence to a mob of unruly loons,” Gilchrist wrote in an E-mail.
Only the Federal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Coalition was still holding its own last year. FIRE has for three consecutive years been the largest nativist extremist group. It remains so, with 124 groups in 34 states last year, down from 136 chapters in 35 states in 2010. FIRE has continued its various projects monitoring undocumented immigrants at wehirealiens.com, where employers who allegedly hire undocumented immigrants are held up for public vilification. But FIRE’s continuing vitality is more likely the result of its taking up more general conservative causes and new allies, including Patriots and Tea Partiers.
New Allies, New Distractions
For two years, nativist extremists have been building bridges to other kinds of far-right groups and, by 2011, several had morphed into Tea Party activists or redefined themselves more broadly as opposed to the federal government’s authority in general. This trend began in 2009, when nativist extremist groups first began to find common cause with those in the Patriot movement, which includes militias and similar groups that identify the federal government as the primary enemy. The movements have much in common, sharing the same “patriotic” vision and love of Revolutionary War rhetoric and imagery.
For its part, the FIRE coalition took up the antigovernment flag in 2009 when it launched The Patriot Coalition. In August 2010, the group went one step further down the Patriot road, co-sponsoring a national conference in Pennsylvania that brought together a motley crew of far-right activists, conspiracy-minded groups like the John Birch Society and an array of other opponents of the Obama Administration. The event’s core theme — “demand [states’] sovereignty from the tyranny of the Federal government”— sounded more like a paean to the Confederacy and “states’ rights” than a complaint about immigration.
The Tea Party movement, too, has become home to many nativist extremists. These groups saw their interests first align during the 2009 debate over President Obama’s healthcare plan, as medical coverage for undocumented immigrants became a flashpoint issue. Since then, the lines between the movements have become increasingly blurred, with leaders frequently making appearances at each other’s events.
Glenn Spencer, who has run the border watch hate group American Border Patrol for nearly 10 years from his home in Cochise County, Ariz., has been instrumental in forging links between the two movements. (Spencer also runs the anti-immigrant hate group American Patrol.) In August 2010, he held an event with the Tea Party Nation at the Arizona border with some 600 activists in attendance. Rally speakers included candidates for office that year as well as Arpaio, the nativist Arizona sheriff. In May 2011, Spencer told Media Matters that he was traveling almost weekly to Tea Party events and that he had plans for “Tea Party groups to come to [his] ranch every week from now on.” He added: “They are really fired up over border issues.”
Last November, the FIRE Coalition continued to strengthen its ties to the Tea Parties, holding “A National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime” that was co-sponsored by the Tea Party Immigration Coalition. That coalition includes 10 Tea Party groups, according to its website. Other Tea Party groups focusing on immigration have also sprung up: the National Tea Party Immigration Coalition and the Immigration Tea Party. In addition, the prominent nativist group NumbersUSA appointed a Tea Party liaison in 2011.
Into the Mainstream
One important reason for the falloff in the nativist extremist groups is that their concerns have largely been adopted by more mainstream allies in the Tea Parties and the Republican Party. As Gilchrist told the Report: “Some of the attention to the immigration issues [has] been assumed by the Tea Party” and the GOP is “now aggressively addressing the illegal immigration issue.” The fact that these other movements have latched onto the issue means activists achieved their goal of making politicians take their anti-immigrant concerns seriously.
This is most obviously the case in the series of state-level anti-immigrant laws that have passed in the last year. In Arizona, several anti-immigrant laws were proposed and passed over the last few years, including S.B. 1070, the first contemporary state-level anti-immigrant statute that was passed in 2010. Written by the legal arm of the anti-immigrant hate group Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the law requires police to ask for proof of legal residency from people they believe could be undocumented immigrants. Tea Party activists gathered thousands of signatures and held rallies in favor of the law, much of which is currently held up in the federal courts.
Several other states followed Arizona’s lead in 2011; Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina have all put in place similar statutes, of which Alabama’s is the harshest. This trend has also brought new importance to groups like FAIR’s legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which crafted most of the laws.
“Though it’s not perfectly clear why the more extreme nativist groups have diminished so quickly, what is clear is that their decline has left [legislation-oriented groups like FAIR] with a virtual monopoly on the anti-immigrant movement,” said Stephen Piggott of the Center for New Community, a liberal advocacy group. “With the rightward shift in state legislatures … anti-immigrant groups like the Immigration Reform Law Institute have adapted to this trend. S.B. 1070 and [Alabama’s] H.B. 56 are the new trademarks of the nativist movement.”
Even so, the nativist tide that has been ascendant over the past decade may be running into trouble. Last year saw the unprecedented recall of the most anti-immigrant politician of them all, Arizona’s former Senate leader, Russell Pearce. The recall efforts were directly tied to Pearce’s anti-immigrant efforts and his ties to racist leaders, in particular the architect of American anti-immigrant movement and the founder of FAIR, John Tanton. Somos Republicanos, a Latino GOP group that gathered signatures for the recall effort in Pearce’s home district of Mesa, cited Tanton and FAIR’s racism as reasons for launching the effort.
At the same time, the fallout from the Alabama law has been devastating. Many undocumented immigrants fled the state and those who remain face unprecedented discrimination. Businesses, particularly in agriculture, have been ruined and executives of foreign car companies have been arrested for not having their papers. As of January, several prominent Republican officials were calling for the law to be drastically revised.
It remains to be seen if S.B. 1070 copycats are introduced in other states in the coming year. At this point, only Kansas, where the law’s author, Kris Kobach, serves as secretary of state, is set to debate such a law.
Evelyn Schlatter contributed to this report.