Can Conservative Talk Radio Derail Immigration Reform—Again?

A coordinated push in 2007 helped to stop a bill, but the landscape has changed drastically in the last six years.
Mr. T in DC/Flickr

It's odd standing in the middle of a dozen talk-radio hosts, all broadcasting from the same hotel ballroom. From the outset, it's just a dozen people talking (or ranting) to themselves. But you know hundreds of thousands are listening. Walking down the row of hosts on Wednesday was like strolling through a sliding radio dial on a conservative-only frequency. Snippets of chatter fade in and out:

"Where's the violence from the Tea Party?" ... "Has he visited the survivors of Benghazi yet?"... "And Janet Napolitano's been lying her ass off."

The hosts were just a few feet from one another, separated by red-velvet curtains in the hotel just blocks from the Capitol. It didn't seem impossible for one broadcaster's voice to be in the background of another's show.

This was the Federation for American Immigration Reform's seventh-annual "Hold Their Feet to the Fire," radio row. Forty-six conservative talk-show hosts, from media markets across the nation, came to this hotel to discuss (or eviscerate) the bipartisan immigration-reform bill that was unveiled at 2 a.m. Wednesday. The billseeks to give a path to legal residency and eventual citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, provided that certain border-security conditions are met.

Roy Beck, founder of NumbersUSA, a group that seeks to bring immigration to pre-1965 levels, comes every year. This year, he was making the rounds to 10 radio stations.

"It's a little bit like being at a day labor site," he said, describing the event.

"Or like speed dating?" I asked.

"It is like speed dating, that's true," he said. "But it is like a day labor site, you're just there. The little pickup truck drives by. Drives real slowly. And I go, 'I'm available! I'm cheeep!'"

FAIR provides a corral of guests like Beck -- heads of interest groups, border-town sheriffs, ranchers, and some congressional representatives (Marco Rubio made an appearance Thursday)--available for the radio show's disposal. While FAIR doesn't mandate the hosts talk to anyone in particular, the forum allows for a consistent message. And their intentions are clear: "Our view is that we would like to know as much about this proposal as possible, and we would like to defeat it early on," FAIR President Dan Stein said.

Sheriff Paul Babeu of Arizona is one of more popular guests in the stable. Babeu -- you may recall -- provided one of the more interesting side stories of the 2012 election. He stepped down from cochairing Romney's campaign in Arizona and eventually his congressional bid after allegations that he had threatened a former male lover with deportation. He has denied this.

In uniform, with big gold "SHERIFF" pins on his shirt collars, he said he was scheduled to talk to 30 radio hosts. As a sheriff in a county near the Mexican border, he has become a totemic critic of the Homeland Security Department. "What we want out of this is a secure border that protects our state, protects our country," he said. "As recent as this week that we had large groups of 100-plus [border crossers] that we haven't seen for years. That's a clue that the reason what's happening is because of the prospect of amnesty, the prospect of a path to citizenship."

Presented by

Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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