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Selling the Anti-Immigrant Story

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (not to be confused with the media watch group FAIR), recently held its fourth “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” event in Washington, D.C. The April 5–7 gathering saw the cozy confluence of freshman lawmakers, veteran creatures of the Hill such as journalist/speechwriter Patrick Buchanan and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R.-Maine), and nearly 50 radio personalities broadcasting from “Radio Row.”

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (not to be confused with the media watch group FAIR), recently held its fourth “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” event in Washington, D.C. The April 5–7 gathering saw the cozy confluence of freshman lawmakers, veteran creatures of the Hill such as journalist/speechwriter Patrick Buchanan and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R.-Maine), and nearly 50 radio personalities broadcasting from “Radio Row.”

In past years Lou Dobbs, known for his anti-immigrant vitriol (FAIR Media Advisory, 11/12/09), had broadcast both his nationally syndicated radio show and his former CNN show from the event. Radio broadcasters present this year were marshaled by Rodger Hedgecock of the right-wing Radio America network.

According to the group’s promotional materials, the Federation is a public policy foundation that has dedicated its existence to educating the public on the economic and social dangers of current immigration policy and illegal immigration. The group’s tax filings over the past several years show that the largest share of its more than $7 million annual budget goes to its media department (nearly $1.8 million, according to latest available tax returns, 2008).

Federation representatives (primarily president Dan Stein, media director Ira Mehlman and communications director Bob Dane) make more than 200 annual appearances in the broadcasts and pages of the nation’s top TV and print media outlets—such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Fox News,MSNBC and CNN. The group has most endeared itself to talk radio, however, reportedly making in excess of 350 radio appearances annually.

During such appearances, Federation pundits sound off on such issues as the U.S./Mexico border wall and so-called “anchor babies.” (See Extra!, 3/11.)

In order to make their representatives as accessible to the world of radio broadcasters as possible, the Federation boasts its own state-of-the-art studio in its national headquarters, located less than a mile from Capitol Hill. During “Feet to the Fire” events, the Federation rents out the conference and ballrooms at the Phoenix Park Hotel (located within spitting distance of the group’s Massachusetts Avenue office), to be used as mass studio space for guest radio broadcasters rallying for two days of non-stop immigration-restriction-themed programming.

While “Feet to the Fire” is crowned most visibly by this two-day barrage of radio coverage, the first day of the event was dedicated this year to lobbying workshops conducted by Federation representatives/lobbyists in order to coach visiting members and other attendees for citizen lobbying during the event. According to Dobbs’ coverage of the 2007 “Feet to the Fire,” many participating radio broadcasters themselves take on the role of lobbyists or advocates, promoting Federation policy to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

While the Federation has worked diligently to become media darlings—proudly advertising that their personnel have been guest speakers at events hosted by the American Association of Newspaper Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists—the Federation was not so eager to speak with or provide information to Extra!.

When initially contacted in the weeks prior to the April event, Mehlman refused to discuss virtually any aspect of the event, stating:

I’m going to be honest with you, your organization [Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting] is not working on our side here—your organization has attacked us on many, many occasions. I don’t see any point in giving all kinds of information to you.… Since you are doing this on behalf of the other FAIR, I’m not sure I want to necessarily be disclosing all sorts of information about the mechanics of all this.

Perhaps a more accurate description of the Federation for American Immigration Reform’s love affair with the media would be that the organization is willing to bend over backward to accommodate those in the media who look the other way when it comes to the organization’s dubious roots, or its role in the legal/cultural shitstorms it has helped to foment in recent years.

Founded in 1979 by retired Michigan ophthalmologist John Tanton, the Federation is regarded by hate-watch groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Center for New Community as a “nativist” organization of the highest order, with its roots firmly embedded in the world of “white nationalists.”

In addition to founding the Federation, Tanton is the father of what SPLC and CNC refer to as the “Tanton Network,” referring to anti-immigrant groups either founded, funded or directed by Tanton—including U.S. Inc., NumbersUSA Action, U.S. English, Pro-English and the Social Contract Press. Tanton remained a Federation board member until his quiet departure this year, reportedly for health reasons (New York Times, 4/30/11).

From the early 1980s through the early 1990s, the Federation drew well over $1 million in funding from the Pioneer Fund, a group dedicated to “research in the problems of heredity and eugenics in the human race.” As its original 1937 articles of incorporation state, the fund also aimed to support “children who are deemed to be descended predominantly of white persons who settled in the original 13 states prior to the adoption of the Constitution of the United States.” (In 1985 the word “white” was removed from this charter, though nothing altering the clear purpose of the fund was introduced.)

Such work supported by fund leadership in the early 20th century has an unmistakable link to the work performed by the Federation today. The fund’s first president, Harry Hamilton Laughlin, is credited as being the driving force behind the 1922’s Model Eugenical Sterilization Law as well as the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. Laughlin’s testimony before Congress on the dilution of the American gene pool by intellectually and morally inferior immigrants was key to the passage of this act.

Pioneer tax records show that the fund donated more than $1 million to the Federation from 1984 to 1993. Only after the financial ties between the Pioneer Fund and the Federation were exposed (with Stein telling theProgressive—10/93—“I don’t give a shit what they do with their money, my job is to get every dime of Pioneer’s money”) did the Pioneer cashflow cease.

Nonetheless, as the Pioneer Fund’s support for various public policy foundations has dwindled, shifting to finance the arcane work of academic eugenicists (Extra!, 1–2/95), the Federation is, to a large degree, carrying on the political work where the Pioneer forefathers left off.

Mehlman told Extra! (during the “Feet to the Fire” event, after his initial refusal to divulge any information regarding the Federation’s operations) that while issues of illegal immigration have certainly taken the forefront of the larger immigration debate, the group’s core belief remains that all immigration—not just unauthorized immigration—needs to be slowed “significantly.”

The Federation for American Immigration Reform is the flagship of a three-tiered organization that includes the Federation Congressional Task Force (FCTF)—the 501(c)(4) lobbying branch—and the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), the legal arm.

In mid-2009, Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce called upon the two “brightest minds” known to him in the sphere of immigration reform: IRLI attorney Kris Kobach and IRLI general counsel Mike Hethmon. Pearce asked the two men to create what became Arizona’s controversial “Support our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act,” otherwise known as SB 1070, which treated immigrants as trespassers if they were found in the state without their papers on them, and required immigration checks for anyone suspected of committing an offense. (A U.S. District Court judge issued a temporary injunction against several provisions of SB 1070 in July 2010; the case is ongoing.)

In December 2009, more than a month prior to its introduction in the Arizona legislature, Pearce presented the bill as a piece of “model legislation” for dissemination through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC—see Extra!, 5/10; In These Times, 6/21/10). Versions of the bill soon appeared in legislatures nationwide, sparking one of the central debates of the 2010 midterm elections.

Overlapping the same period of Kobach’s employment with Pearce on the SB 1070 project, the IRLI attorney was employed as a private contractor in advising the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (led by notoriously anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio—see Extra!, 6/09) and former Ma-ricopa County counsel Andrew Thomas in matters of immigration enforcement.

In November, 2010, Kobach was elected Kansas secretary of State. Hethmon remains IRLI general counsel.

Amazingly, few mainstream media outlets published reports of IRLI’s involvement in the compilation of SB 1070—or its ALEC “model” counterpart—over the course of 2010, much less IRLI’s connection to the Federation.

They did make room for op-eds in support of SB 1070 written by Stein—without identifying his connection to IRLI and SB 1070 (L.A. Times, 4/30/10; USA Today, 7/30/10). The New York Times published an op-ed authored by Kobach (4/29/10) only days after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into effect, in which Kobach defended key points of criticism aimed at the bill—with no mention of his connection to the Federation or IRLI. The Times simply described Kobach as a law professor and the chief immigration law adviser to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The Times ran an editorial (4/27/11) nearly a year after the Kobach op-ed, crediting Kobach as being the author of SB 1070 and drafter of a version of another piece of ALEC model legislation, the “Voter ID ACT”—which prohibits anyone who cannot produce identification from voting. The Times editorial, likewise, made no mention of IRLI or the Federation.

Similarly, mainstream media outlets by and large failed to report over the course of 2010 that Kobach, while working as IRLI’s attorney, had drafted municipal ordinances enacted in several communities across the country, from Riverside, New Jersey, to Escondido, California. Kobach’s ordinances require all individuals renting apartments to register with local police and obtain a “occupancy license” based on their citizenship status. These ordinances also require local businesses to check employee’s citizenship status using the Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify system.

Unsurprisingly, lobbying in favor of SB 1070 and federal legislation mandating employer participation in the E-Verify program are among the top issues pushed by Federation pundits via April’s “Radio Row.”

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