Where the White House Gets its Racist Immigration Policies

Protest in support of DACA, September 1, 2017. Photo: Joe Flood / Flickr.

It should come as no surprise that President Trump disparages scores of countries while lamenting the lack of European immigrants coming to the U.S., as he reportedly did during a meeting with lawmakers in January 2018. In addition to his racially charged rhetoric at public events, his administration has sought formal and informal advice from leaders of the Xenophobic Right that has espoused such bigotry for decades.

Over the last year, the organized anti-immigrant movement has obtained significant influence. The movement’s influence is readily apparent in myriad immigration-related policy changes over the last year. Such changes range from the administration’s attacks on family reunification and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to increasingly overzealous enforcement practices and rescinding benefits of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for undocumented youth. As Congress considers legislative solutions to the administration’s self-created DACA quandary, the anti-immigrant movement is in a position to radically shift the country’s immigration system towards its bigoted goals in ways not seen in over two decades.

The Contemporary Anti-Immigrant Movement’s White Nationalist Beginnings

The contemporary anti-immigrant movement began in 1979, when Michigan ophthalmologist and White nationalist John Tanton founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) with the purpose of substantially limiting immigration. Tanton originally portrayed his advocacy of immigration limits through a lens of environmental concerns like other population alarmists of the 1960s and 70s. However, Tanton’s personal correspondence, now archived at the University of Michigan, reveals racial bigotry was arguably a more significant source of motivation. The first public indication of Tanton’s bigotry and White nationalist aims came in the late 1980s while his organization, U.S. English, was involved in multiple state referendum efforts to make English the official language. Immigration advocates released a 1986 memo Tanton wrote where he asked, “As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?” U.S. English Executive Director Linda Chavez, as well as several other board members, resigned from the organization following the memo’s release.

Tanton’s later correspondence made his racialized worldview even more explicit. “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American Society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that,” Tanton wrote in 1993. In a 1995 letter to a financial supporter, Tanton described “the cultural consequences of demographic changes that are under way” and “the decline of folks who look like you and me” as a “prime concern.” In the same letter, Tanton enclosed a copy of an essay by late White nationalist Lawrence Auster, The Path to National Suicide.

To further FAIR’s efforts and his own white nationalist aims, Tanton founded a think tank in 1985. “For credibility, this will need to be independent of FAIR, though the Center for Immigration Studies, as we’re calling it, is starting off as a project of FAIR,” Tanton wrote in September 1985. The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) was created in response to supposed “pro-immigration forces” that “have the manpower, the material, and the money to crank out papers, run seminars, and supply speakers, and so on.”

“In addition, they have the ear of the President,” Tanton bemoaned.

The political reality Tanton perceived in the mid-1980s changed considerably in the subsequent decade. After President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which offered a pathway to citizenship for approximately three million undocumented immigrants in 1986, FAIR and CIS redoubled efforts to influence lawmakers and cultivate new allies sympathetic to their anti-immigrant aims on Capitol Hill. Their efforts ultimately led to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996. The draconian law still contributes significantly to the criminalization of immigrants and established the current systems of mass deportation and immigrant incarceration. The law “eliminated key defenses against deportation and subjected many more immigrants, including legal permanent residents, to detention and deportation,” according to Human Rights Watch. IIRIRA also erected new barriers for asylum applicants and “defined a greatly expanded range of criminal convictions – including relatively minor, nonviolent ones – for which legal permanent residents could be automatically deported.”

FAIR worked closely with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), IIRIRA’s lead sponsor in the House. Cordia Strom, a FAIR lawyer, worked for Smith and was a primary influence on the legislation. Author Philip G. Schrag described Strom as a “pollinating bee” on Capitol Hill, conveying FAIR’s ideas between the House and Senate’s immigration sub-committees, chaired by Smith and Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY), respectively. “We knew that it was a clear advantage to have two strong reformers [chairing] the two sub-committees,” FAIR President Dan Stein told Schrag. “When you have the drafting advantage you have a big advantage.” Former Immigration and Naturalization Services Commissioner Doris Meissner was even more straightforward describing Strom’s influence, telling Deepah Fernandes that “she directly wrote it.”

President Clinton signed the Strom-authored bill into law on September 30, 1996. In December of that year, Roy Beck, a close associate of Tanton’s and an editor of his racist quarterly publication The Social Contract, founded NumbersUSA. Beck, who Tanton has described as his “heir apparent,” founded the new organization to mobilize phone calls and faxes to Congress in support of the anti-immigrant movement’s agenda. NumbersUSA operated as a project of Tanton’s umbrella organization, U.S. Inc., before formally separating from Tanton’s operation in 2002. The group now claims over eight million members and remains the anti-immigrant movement’s primary vehicle for grassroots mobilization.

Tanton is no longer active in the day-to-day operations of any of these groups, but his legacy remains. The principal leaders of FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA have all spent more than two decades in Tanton’s orbit and some of their public statements indicate they share his explicit bigotries. FAIR President Dan Stein has said “Immigrants don’t come all church-loving, freedom-loving, God-fearing. … Many of them hate America; hate everything that the United States stands for. Talk to some of these Central Americans.” Bob Dane, FAIR’s current executive director, refused to condemn Tanton’s expressed desire to maintain a European-American majority population, claiming last year that “the question of whether a country loses its majority status is a fair question.” CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian has written that “Haiti’s so screwed up because it wasn’t colonized long enough.” He has also said Mexico’s “weakness and backwardness has been deeply harmful to the United States” and accused the Obama administration of fomenting “race war.” NumbersUSA’s Roy Beck has addressed members of the White nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens and derided immigrant communities as “enabling pools” that foster crime and terrorists. Bigoted remarks about “shithole” countries seem like an inevitability when this trio of organizations become go-to advisors for the White House.

FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA have had significant success shifting immigration policy debates to the right over the last two decades. Lawmakers and media now frequently use the movement’s preferred language when discussing immigration policy. Most notably, the three groups led opposition efforts to proposals in 2006-07 and 2013-14 that would provide many undocumented immigrants with a pathway to citizenship. The groups also successfully mobilized opposition to citizenship for undocumented youth, disparaging any policy as “amnesty.”

President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program during the summer of 2012, allowing undocumented youth to apply for temporary deportation relief and work authorization. Hundreds of thousands would eventually benefit from the program. But DACA was always a temporary fix to a problem requiring a permanent solution. The anti-immigrant movement sought to end that temporary solution even earlier by going to court. Shortly after Obama announced DACA, NumbersUSA announced it would underwrite a lawsuit filed by ten Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and the State of Mississippi challenging the program.

Kansas Secretary of State and leading nativist lawyer Kris Kobach led the NumbersUSA-funded legal challenge. Kobach, who would later become a member of the Trump administration’s transition team and its ill-fated voter fraud commission, was perhaps best known at the time as the author of Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 and an advisor to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. For years, Kobach has been a lawyer for FAIR’s legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, and has unsuccessfully defended numerous anti-immigrant provisions in court.

Kobach’s lawsuit against DACA met a similar fate. Crane v. Johnson was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015. DACA would remain in effect until the Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s plans to rescind the program in September 2017.

Groundswell and building the foundations for Trump 2016

While the anti-immigrant movement was litigating DACA and building opposition to a comprehensive immigration reform measure passed by the Senate in 2013, it was also involving itself in efforts to reassert far-right messages and lay the intellectual groundwork for Donald Trump’s eventual presidential campaign. Representatives of the organized anti-immigrant movement joined far-right activists like anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney, Breitbart News employees, and members of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions’s staff to coordinate messaging and other strategies via a secretive Google group called Groundswell. Copies of Groundswell emails obtained by Mother Jones in 2013 reveal the group’s aims to wage “a 30 front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation.” Groundswell formalized nativist groups’ relationship with far-right media outlets like The Daily Caller and Breitbart and the effort would position them as influential policy experts on the Right ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Through this coordination, the anti-immigrant movement was able to increase the salience of messages that previously lived on the relative fringes of policy debates. No matter how misleading they may be.

In right-wing media, U.S.-born children of immigrants were no longer United States citizens, increasingly they were slurred as “anchor babies.” DACA wasn’t a program offering temporary deportation relief to a segment of the immigrant population a vast majority of the country believes should be offered citizenship, it was an “executive amnesty.” The Obama administration, which placed more people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border into deportation proceedings than any of its predecessors, was carrying out a “catch and release” program. Law enforcement jurisdictions recognizing the unconstitutional nature of ICE detainers no longer provided Fourth Amendment protections, they became “‘sanctuaries’ for dangerous illegal aliens.”

The constellation of figures and institutions comprising the Groundswell group gathered around the Trump campaign as it launched in the summer of 2015. Leaders of these organizations, like Mark Krikorian, would attend campaign meetings and be asked to serve as a campaign surrogate. Others, like FAIR Executive Director Julie Kirchner would leave her position at the anti-immigrant group and formally join the campaign as an advisor. As would Jon Feere, a longtime legal analyst at CIS. (Both Kirchner and Feere now have jobs within the Department of Homeland Security.) The campaign would regularly source organizations like the Center for Immigration Studies in stump speeches and advertisements to justify its bigoted policy proposals. Groundswell’s media outlets, most notably Breitbart, would incessantly use their platform to discredit Trump’s opposition in the crowded GOP primary field and amplify their prefered candidate’s racist populist appeals. Meanwhile, corporate media outlets would provide stenographer-like coverage Trump campaign events, creating a larger audience for the anti-immigrant movement’s messages.

The close relationship between the Trump campaign and Groundswell’s media platforms would become even more obvious when Breitbart News chairman Stephen Bannon left the company to lead the Trump campaign during its final months and later become White House Chief Strategist. The presence of Jeff Sessions, one of the anti-immigrant movement’s most strident allies in the U.S. Senate provides another avenue of influence for the movement. As do his former staffers now working in the Department of Justice and White House, like Gene Hamilton and Stephen Miller.

After Election Day, the anti-immigrant movement recognized the substantial influence it would have on the incoming administration and reoriented its priorities accordingly. Instead of taking a reactive stance, as it had in recent years opposing so-called sanctuary cities and Obama-era enforcement priorities, the movement went on the offensive. It eyed one of its oldest and most ambitious goals: reductions in authorized immigration.

Attacking family visa sponsorships became the primary way the movement would seek this reduction. In December 2016, NumbersUSA’s Roy Beck announces a “break the chains” campaign in his annual message to supporters. Beck described the moment as one “of the best opportunities we’ve ever had to reduce immigration by millions over the next decade” and urged readers to lend their support and help stop “the most destructive part of U.S. immigration.”

Meanwhile, lists of policy proposals produced by both FAIR and CIS were swiftly embraced by the Trump transition team. Many of their provisions were quickly implemented via executive order in the administration’s first weeks. Moreover, as The Daily Beast reported, all three anti-immigrant groups began receiving invitations to ICE stakeholder meetings–a new development for most of the movement’s leadership. “As you might imagine, the communication is much better now, and people are asking us to attend all kinds of different meetings,” Dan Stein said of interactions with the administration in early 2017. “FAIR is a very important organization for explaining to people the purposes and strategies behind various administration strategies, and quite naturally the administration would have an interest in making sure we understood the information and properly explain it to people if we’re asked.”

By the end of the year, the administration would rescind DACA and cynically force Congress to address immigration policy in a significant way. The anti-immigrant movement made sure its drastic cuts to immigrant admissions would be on the negotiating table.

Work permits for ‘Dreamers,’ separation for families

Eliminating DACA was a top priority for the anti-immigrant movement–it was the first action FAIR recommended in its November 2016 policy priorities document. When the Department of Justice was asked to provide evidence for claims Attorney General Sessions made while announcing the program’s end, it provided editorials written by CIS representatives rather than empirical research. The Trump administration’s decision to end DACA created space for a legislative replacement for the temporary program Obama created. More dangerously, as the prospects of a “clean” DACA bill faded, the anti-immigrant movement seized on the opportunity to codify its long-sought immigration reductions via legislation. The term “chain migration” and efforts to eliminate family visa categories would dominate immigration policy debates in Washington by the end of 2017.

In both corporate and right-wing media, occurrences of the term “chain migration” skyrocketed from virtual obscurity in 2016 to a standard phrase in most of late 2017’s immigration coverage. “The dramatic shift didn’t happen by accident,” Roy Beck wrote to NumbersUSA supporters in December. “Every positive CHAIN MIGRATION development this year was connected directly or indirectly to the work of NumbersUSA’s three dozen staffers and its on-line grassroots network of more than 9 million.”

The anti-immigrant movement’s efforts to make family reunification a toxic concept played a significant role in this development. In December, NumbersUSA began running national television advertisements illustrating “chain migration.” The ads are a gross misrepresentation of authorized immigration processes, suggesting the admission of one immigrant expeditiously leads to scores of additional immigrants. The ad disingenuously suggests the family visa sponsorship creates a massive web of new arrivals that ultimately overwhelms the current population. Complicated realities of the U.S. immigration system such as the substantial backlogs and annual visa caps are conveniently ignored to present this narrative. FAIR produced a similar video last month and the White House released a series of graphics similarly distorting U.S. immigration policies to malign family reunification.

While Congress negotiates a DACA replacement, whether it be new, provisional work authorization or a laborious pathway to citizenship, both parties in Congress seem content accepting the anti-immigrant movement and Trump administration’s bigoted position on family reunification. The scope of relief provided to DACA beneficiaries and other immigrants in each proposal varies. But nearly every reported effort in Congress includes reallocating or removing family visa categories. Efforts to preserve the approximately 50,000 Diversity Lottery visas distributed annually have been similarly abandoned. Indeed, it appears both parties have blindly accepted the anti-immigrant movement’s bigoted position that family-based reunification, the foundation of U.S. immigration policy since explicitly racist immigration quotas were repealed in 1965, must be curtailed. And millions of immigrant families and prospective immigrants will suffer for it.

Leaders of the anti-immigrant movement, meanwhile, are relishing their newfound influence. “Getting out of bed these days is a lot more fun than it used to be,” FAIR’s Dan Stein told Vice News last year. “I’m having the time of my life.”

The anti-immigrant movement attained this influential position after decades cultivating relationships with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and publishing deceitful work to incite scapegoating, suspicion, and repression of immigrant communities. Now with a direct line to the Trump administration, it has seen many of its policy goals already implemented in 2017–causing great harm to immigrant communities in the process. The realization of many of these policies is tragically no surprise given the movement’s close ties to the current administration. However, the unwillingness of other elected officials to firmly defend policies that strengthen immigrant families and communities across the country is shameful. In spite of an increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement regime and the uncertainty many DACA beneficiaries face, grassroots movements continue fighting for the protection of their communities. Until their concerns are heeded and their actions receive a proper response, the anti-immigrant movement will continue to make gains–inflicting further harm as it seeks to recreate an even more shameful era of U.S. immigration policy.