Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a new report, “Attacking the Constitution: State Legislators for Legal Immigration and the Anti-Immigrant Movement.” It documents the radical beliefs of 12 leading members of a coalition called State Legislators for Legal Immigration (SLLI). The group is pushing harsh, anti-immigrant legislation across the country and announced in January a national campaign to attack the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship for all children born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction of its laws.
SLLI, which has about 65 members in 40 states, was founded by Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe in 2007. As the SPLC’s report documents, SLLI’s members embrace a raft of radical beliefs, including conspiracy theories about supposed government concentration camps, a coming one-world government and false claims that President Obama is a foreigner and Muslim. Members have described undocumented immigrants in vicious terms, as “invaders” or as a “poison.”
Metcalfe has said that immigrant parents “live the life of a criminal” and should have their children taken away. He has routinely demonized undocumented immigrants as criminals, despite studies that clearly show immigrants are on average much less criminal than native-born Americans. Metcalfe’s extremism is about more than immigration. He once denounced Pennsylvania’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month as part of the “homosexual agenda” because it included men as possible victims of domestic violence. He characterized military veterans concerned about climate change and foreign energy dependence as traitors promoting a “leftist agenda.” And, like others in the so-called “birther” movement, Metcalfe has cast doubt on Obama’s U.S. citizenship.
Other SLLI members have expressed similarly radical ideas. Charles Key, an Oklahoma legislator, has claimed the federal government had advance knowledge of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and engaged in a “cover-up.” Matt Shea, a Washington legislator, appeared on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ radio show and expressed concerns about supposed concentration camps operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Sally Kern, an Oklahoma legislator, told a newspaper that she opposed high-resolution driver’s license photos because she believed they were a sign of the end times. And Danny Verdin, a South Carolina state senator who described undocumented immigrants as a “poison” and a “malady” during a SLLI press conference, has compared the fight against undocumented immigrants to the Confederacy’s struggle against the Union.
There are additional reasons to be concerned about SLLI. The group works very closely with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which the SPLC has designated as an anti-immigrant hate group because of its white nationalist agenda and ties to racist groups (a chapter of the report documents FAIR’s hateful agenda and ties). FAIR lawyers have authored the harsh anti-immigrant legislative proposals SLLI members are pushing in their respective states, including the group’s proposals to undermine the 14th Amendment.
The nativist descriptions of foreign “invaders” bearing all kinds of social ills that come from the likes of Metcalfe and FAIR are hardly new in America. Similar attacks on disfavored groups of the moment have marked our history from the very beginning. During the 1866 congressional debate leading up to the 14th Amendment’s adoption two years later, 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, much like today’s white nationalists, 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.” Cowan warned against “a flood of immigration of the Mongol race” and, sounding a lot like Metcalfe, of the country being “invaded.”
The original debates over the 14th Amendment reveal something more (the relevant pages of The Congressional Globe on the debate can be found here, here and here). Though SLLI contends that the 14th Amendment has been misapplied to grant automatic U.S. citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants, it is clear from the record that the Amendment’s sponsors did intend for it to cover the children of non-citizens. Sen. John Conness of California, who rose in defense of the undocumented of that time, said that the children of the Chinese and Gypsies born in this country should be “regarded as citizens of the United States.” No person “claiming to have a high humanity,” he argued, could take a contrary position.
Thankfully, Cowan’s racist views about immigrants did not win the day, as his fellow senators rose in defense of immigrants by voting for the 14th Amendment.