The New Nativism

More than 400 anti-immigration activists gathered in Las Vegas over Memorial Day weekend to bemoan President Bush's failure to close the borders. One described the United States as a nation at war “every time a Mexican flag is planted on American soil.” They celebrated their most recent success: a “border watch” in Arizona by fewer than 400 Minutemen vigilantes that had generated millions of dollars of free advertising. In the aftermath, Minutemen shops opened in Texas, Colorado, and Tennessee.

The two dozen speakers in Las Vegas reflected the breadth of a new movement still in birth: the parents of a dead September 11 firefighter, a police chief from New Hampshire, Pat Buchanan's vice-presidential running mate from his Reform Party bid in 2000, representatives of “immigration reform” organizations, a couple of talk-radio personalities, and several Republican Party activists (signaling the advent of immigration as the next big issue for the party's right wing). On the auditorium floor, hardcore white nationalists mixed easily, distributing literature and engaging potential recruits, explicitly identifying nation with race.

California Coalition for Immigration Reform spokeswoman Barbara Coe told the assembly that undocumented workers were “illegal barbarians who are cutting off heads and appendages of blind, white, disabled gringos.” Coe believes a widely held demographic conspiracy theory called the “Reconquista,” a supposedly covert plan by Mexico to take back the lands of the Southwest. In 1994, the Los Angeles Times credited Coe with providing the organizational muscle behind a statewide anti-immigrant referendum known as Proposition 187. That measure, later found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, denied social and medical services to undocumented workers and their children. Outside the hall, along Desert Inn Road, a billboard sign read “Stop Immigration, Join the National Alliance,” an imprecation to enlist in an avowedly national socialist sect known best for producing The Turner Diaries, the race-war terror novel carried by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

For this movement, the most important figure in mainstream trappings is Representative Tom Tancredo, a Republican from Colorado's 6th District, who delivered the keynote speech to great applause. The chief of a congressional immigration-reform caucus that he organized, Tancredo is a ubiquitous presence at such rallies and meetings. For him, Proposition 187 was the “primal scream of the people of California,” which he described as being under “political, economic, and cultural siege.” Tancredo trades on his role as a Capitol Hill insider to enhance his standing in a far-flung movement. And in Congress his reputation far exceeds his backbencher status, precisely because of his standing among angry Middle Americans. In Las Vegas, Tancredo was alternately humble and proud, comic and serious. He distanced himself from President Bush with a quip about the Minutemen's border watch the previous April. “The same day the president was calling them vigilantes, I was in Arizona calling them heroes,” he gloated.

As evidenced by events in Las Vegas, a single -- but not seamless -- web connects ideological white supremacists, armed border vigilantes, nativist think tanks, political action committees, and Republican Party officeholders in an anti-immigrant movement of growing significance. Formal policy deliberations may include debates on the fiscal costs of providing social services to undocumented workers, the supposed downward pressure immigrant labor exerts on the marketplace, the net costs and benefits of immigration, and the national-security problems evinced by holes in our borders. But at gatherings like these, the raw issues are race and national identity.

Differences between legal and illegal immigrants fade into a generalized belief that a brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking tidal wave is about to swamp the white-skinned population of the United States. The attempt to stop undocumented workers at the borders morphs into a campaign to end immigration altogether, to save our supposedly white nation from demographic ruin. As Tancredo told interviewer John Hawkins, “[If] we don't control immigration, legal and illegal, we will eventually reach the point where it won't be what kind of a nation we are, balkanized or united; we will have to face the fact that we are no longer a nation at all … .”

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Tancredo epitomizes an ominous overlap between seemingly respectable Republican anti-immigration activists and the white nationalist movement. His own route to anti-immigrant politics began in a Denver suburb, where he taught junior high school. He was elected to the Colorado statehouse in 1976 and re-elected in 1978, earning a reputation for cutting taxes and social services. Tancredo also called for the dissolution of the cabinet-level Education Department. However, in 1981, President Reagan named Tancredo a regional director in that department. He now touts his record of reducing his staff from 220 to 60.

In 1985, he used his office to distribute to Christian educators in his six-state region a speech by a onetime colleague that called for a “truly Christian educational system” and lamented “godlessness” in a country founded as a “Christian nation.” When a California resident sent Tancredo a postcard at the Education Department objecting to the material, the Californian received a personally derogatory letter from a Treasury Department employee -- who apparently monitored activity across departments he considered “anti-Christian.” A subsequent investigation by Representative Pat Schroeder resulted in the Treasury official's dismissal and an apology from the Education Department's public-affairs office. Nevertheless, Tancredo kept his post and was reappointed by President George Bush Senior in 1989, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

After Bill Clinton's election in 1992, Tancredo moved over to a regional policy center, financed by the Coors family, known as the Independence Institute, where he served as executive director until 1998. During the Clinton years, both the militias and the anti-immigrant movement bubbled into public view, and Tancredo associated himself with both. While he disavowed any formal relationship to militias, he was one of several speakers at a 1994 meeting called by the far-right, Colorado-based Guardians of American Liberty.

When he ran for Congress in 1998, Tancredo took $500 from the Gun Owners of America Political Victory Fund, a group prominent in the militia movement. Gun Owners' boss Larry Pratt had given a high-visibility 1992 speech to Aryan Nations figures and other white supremacists at a meeting regarded as the movement's birthplace. The speech to the Aryans became so controversial that Pat Buchanan asked Pratt to step down as a co-chair of the former's 1996 Republican Party campaign. After the 1999 student shootings and deaths at Columbine High School -- just blocks from Tancredo's home -- his public ardor for gun rights stilled. (Nevertheless, he accepted $12,000 from the National Rifle Association between 1999 and 2003.)

Tancredo's immigration caucus has now grown to 91 members, and it promotes legislation to reduce legal immigration, plug the borders, and, in its own words, “address the widespread problem of voting by illegal aliens.” It also seeks to pass legislation denying citizenship to children born in the United States if their parents are undocumented residents. This goal is explicitly contradicted by the Constitution, which declares that any person born in the United States is a citizen.

A similar political action committee and lobby called Team America holds periodic conferences featuring the major names of the anti-immigrant movement. Bay Buchanan serves as executive director, and the outfit bears the markings of Pat Buchanan's views. In his most recent book, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, Buchanan makes an explicitly racial and religious argument, writing that falling “European” birthrates and rising immigration from Africa, Asia, and Latin America spell doom for America and the West; whether legal or illegal, nonwhite immigrants, as they reproduce, endanger white America.

Peter Brimelow, a former editor at Forbes magazine, echoes Buchanan's contentions. “Suppose I had proposed more immigrants who look like me,” Brimelow wrote in his book Alien Nation. “So what? As late as 1950, somewhere up to nine out of ten Americans looked like me. That is, they were of European stock … . In those days, they had another name for this thing dismissed so contemptuously as ‘the racial hegemony of white Americans. They called it ‘America.'” These two writers provide an intellectualized rationale for the raw, crudely white-supremacist view that America is -- or once was and should now be -- a white and Christian nation.

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After the 1965 immigration act removed barriers based on national origin and ended the formulas discriminating in favor of immigrants from Western European countries, the first protests were lodged by the white-sheet and brown-shirt crowds. David Duke's Knights of the Ku Klux Klan protested Cuban refugees housed in Arkansas, and Duke staged his own Minutemen-like “border patrol” in California in 1977. In Galveston, Texas, a court order finally stopped Klansmen from burning the boats of newly arrived Vietnamese fishermen. During the same period, Aryan Nations produced a three-color propaganda map showing an immigrant invasion from Mexico (a version of which is still distributed). The term “mud flood” entered the racist lexicon. White-power skinheads attacked immigrants as part of their general war on people of color. One group beat an Ethiopian student to death in Portland in 1988; a duo murdered a Vietnamese teenager in Houston; and, in 1997, a lone-wolf skinhead shot to death a West African at a Denver bus stop.

At this end of the spectrum anti-Semitic conspiracy theories hold sway, and the battle against immigrants is linked to a campaign against Jewish control. Cadres from national socialist groups participated in the Minutemen border watch in Arizona in April 2004. At a recent Save Our State rally in California, they unfurled both the Confederate flag and one with a swastika while picketing a day-labor site. All of these episodes portend violence, and in Tennessee a Klansman pleaded guilty in August to making and selling pipe bombs with immigrants as the target.

An emblematic example of how the unsavory pieces of this movement intersect is the career of Wayne Charles Lutton, who holds a doctorate from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. In the early 1980s, he wrote book reviews for National Review, penned articles on AIDS for Christian-right publications, and won recognition as an expert on population and immigration. At the same time, writing as Charles Lutton, he got involved with the Institute for Historical Review, a pseudo-scholarly group of Holocaust-deniers. Lutton wrote for its journal in the 1980s and '90s, mostly about military strategy, and joined the institute's advisory board in 1985. Today Lutton serves as a trustee of the New Century Foundation, the corporate shell holding a think tank known as American Renaissance, an advocate of both scientific racism and white nationalism, and he speaks frequently at its conferences.

Lutton's résumé as a highly educated flat-earther would be of little consequence here except that he also occupies this seat at one of the most significant anti-immigrant think tanks. He edits its journal, The Social Contract, and co-authored The Immigration Invasion, a 190-page paperback written in 1994. Onetime Democratic presidential aspirant Eugene McCarthy, surprisingly, wrote a two-page foreword for the book (“I recommend study of the immigration issue and of this thoughtful book to all Americans.”). The book's circulation has been so widespread -- due in large measure to the financial power of Lutton's co-author and boss at the Social Contract Press, John Tanton -- that it is now part of the growing movement's wallpaper.

It was Tanton who founded the anti-immigration movement's most powerful institution, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). A retired ophthalmologist once active on environmental issues, his interest in immigration was marked in the beginning by an explicitly racial argument. “To govern is to populate,” Tanton wrote in 1986. “Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile? … 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?”

Tanton founded FAIR in 1979. Between 1982 and 1994, it received more than $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund. A little-known foundation created in 1937, the Pioneer Fund likes to benignly describe its origins in “the Darwinian-Galtonian evolutionary tradition, and the eugenics movement.” In the late 1930s, though, it frankly admired Hitler. Today, it still bankrolls groups such as the aforementioned American Renaissance and the American Immigration Control Foundation (AICF) in Virginia. As fair has attempted to develop a more mainstream persona, it has dropped the Pioneer Fund as a funding source. FAIR's executive director, Dan Stein, has repeatedly denied that any racial animus motivates its activities. But the federation has kept Tanton on its corporate board of directors.

In addition, FAIR's political action committee, the U.S. Immigration Reform PAC, routinely receives significant contributions from Tanton and his wife. FAIR's PAC has contributed more than a quarter-million dollars for and against candidates since 1999. In 2000, it spent more than $30,000 against Republican Senator Spencer Abraham of Michigan, an Arab American, who lost that general election. Not surprisingly, it has also given Representative Tancredo $15,000 over the years, according to Federal Election Commission documents. Buried in those documents is a disclosure that the PAC had Peter Gemma on its payroll doing clerical work. Gemma is a denizen of Holocaust-denial meetings and other hardcore anti-Semitic venues, according to Devin Burghart, the author of numerous reports on anti-immigrant groups for the Center for New Community in Chicago. Gemma apparently did not make any of the money decisions at FAIR's PAC, but his presence is another indicator of the shark-infested waters that politicians like Tancredo swim in.

While FAIR has the biggest footprint on Capitol Hill, the AICF possesses the largest list of donors among the think tanks that provide literature and ideas to local groups. It has also received $180,000 in grants from the Pioneer Fund. But its main source of funds is an immense donor base: more than 400,000 names of contributors who give $5 or more, according to documents provided by the Center for New Community. The donor list legally belongs to American Immigration Control Foundation NC, one of three corporations that make up this particular mini-empire.

Notably, the AICF is heavily interlaced with the Council of Conservative Citizens. The lineal descendant of the '60s-era white Citizens Councils, the Council of Conservative Citizens revived itself in the '90s with campaigns for the Confederate flag and against immigration. It stays away from explicit anti-Semitism and describes itself as a “white separatist” group rather than “white nationalist.” This distinction is without a difference -- particularly given the arguments its leadership have made for a genetically determined notion of American nationalism. Trent Lott was forced to disassociate himself from the council once his ties to the group became public.

The Council of Conservative Citizens is heavily linked with several anti-immigrant groups, including the AICF. One AICF board member, Brent Nelson, also sits as director of the council's foundation. President of the AICF's board from 1993–95, the now-deceased Sam Francis edited the council's tabloid until this year and otherwise served as its commanding philosopher-general. And the aforementioned Wayne Lutton, editor of Social Contract and occupant of Holocaust-denial circles, serves on the Council of Conservative Citizens' editorial advisory board.

Although not cut from a single party-line cookie cutter, each of these personalities connects other anti-immigrant groups to the Council of Conservative Citizens. And on significant occasions these links extend into the electoral process and policy making. Consider Arizona's Proposition 200 and Virginia Abernethy.

Dr. Virginia Deane Abernethy, a retired professor from Vanderbilt University's School of Medicine and author of several books on population and environment, sits on the board of two organizations with immigration concerns. She is yet another highly educated professional serving on the Council of Conservative Citizens editorial advisory board and a frequent featured speaker at the council's meetings.

Proposition 200 requires proof of citizenship when registering to vote or when signing up for state welfare benefits. It passed with 56 percent of the vote in the Arizona Legislature. More tightly written than California's Proposition 187, the Arizona referendum has survived court challenges to date and is likely to inspire similar statewide initiatives. Brought to the ballot by an organization known as Protect Arizona Now, campaign-finance report forms show that it received in-kind contributions totaling $600,000 from the Federation for American Immigration Reform -- which essentially underwrote the petition's signature-gathering process. But when the Protect Arizona Now committee selected a chair for its national advisory board, it did not pick someone from FAIR. Instead, it chose Abernethy, according to the Center for New Community, which issued a special report on her selection. “With charges of racism already swirling around I-200 … [Protect Arizona Now] has taken the surprising step of choosing a leading figure in the white supremacist movement,” the center wrote.

When questioned about her views, Abernethy told The Arizona Republic that she was a “white separatist,” a term used by white nationalists when they want to avoid the ugly implications of the supremacist label. She added, “We're saying that each ethnic group is often happier with its own kind.” What did Protect Arizona Now's founder say when asked by the paper? That Abernethy is “considered the grande dame of the anti-immigration movement.”

In response to the controversy, FAIR issued a press release that read, “FAIR, and everyone fair represents, categorically denies and repudiates Abernethy's repulsive separatist views.” The repudiation did not extend to FAIR's own cooperation with white nationalists, however, which goes far beyond acceptance of Pioneer Fund monies.

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Public acknowledgment of the connection between white nationalism and the anti-immigrant movement threatens to undermine the legislative strength of FAIR and Representative Tancredo's congressional caucus. Both are doing their best to dodge this bullet. “People who say it's racist to want secure borders are insulting the intelligence of the American people … ,” Tancredo wrote in a May 1 Los Angeles Times op-ed. By his lights, the combined impact of Proposition 200 and the Minutemen has energized his movement.

Initiatives modeled on Arizona's Proposition 200 are already under way in Washington state, Colorado, and California, and are under consideration elsewhere. The major PACs will decide early next year whom to support in the 2006 congressional races, and they won't hesitate to back primary candidates against Republicans they regard as too soft on border issues. Immigration-related matters -- from driver's licenses to social services to public education -- will be under consideration in virtually every state legislature in the country next year, and the initiative has been seized by nativists, xenophobes, and white nationalists.

After a congressional seat from California's District 48 opened up for a special election, one of the Minutemen's founders, Jim Gilchrest, ran as a candidate of the marginal American Independent Party in an all-party primary on October 4. Gilchrest received 14.4 percent of the vote, more than the Democratic Party candidate, and enough to come in third. The Orange County Register counted “illegal immigration” as the issue that forced a runoff election.

Tancredo could well run in the 2008 presidential primaries. He has not formally declared his candidacy, but has said that he would run if no other candidate emerged to carry his “immigration reform” banner. He visited New Hampshire and Iowa. In that first caucus state, he held three house party fund-raisers in July sponsored by local Christian Coalition activists. Tancredo knows this constituency well, dating back to his days as a Colorado state legislator, and he has also spoken twice in Georgia at the Christian Coalition's annual conventions. His trip to Iowa was tightly managed by Bay Buchanan, and he seems to be following the path left by Bay's brother Pat in 1992 and '96.

Things have changed in 10 years, however. Today the thin white nationalist trail around the edges of the Republican mountain is a major highway, one in which mainstream travelers mingle with bandits.

Leonard Zeskind is completing a book on the white nationalist movement for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He was a MacArthur Fellow in 1998 and a Petra Fellow in 1992.