The Little Group Behind the Big Fight to Stop Immigration Reform

A powerful coalition supports reforming immigration. But on the other side is a scrappy, tech-savvy organization that's won before.
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The man behind the grassroots movement to stop immigration reform has been busy lately, preparing for the coming fight.

"No other August has been this critical," Roy Beck, the executive director of NumbersUSA, said in a recent interview in his group's Northern Virginia office -- a large but somewhat shabby suite with a panoramic view over the Potomac.

A massive, bipartisan immigration bill passed the Democrat-led Senate in June, putting major reform as close as it's ever been to passage. There are even signs it is gaining momentum to overcome the biggest obstacle, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Beck's mission is to halt immigration reform in its tracks.

The real battle is about to begin. All those wavering Republican congressmen, most of whom have been noncommittal thus far, head home next week to their districts for Congress's traditional August break. It's Beck's job to ensure that what comes next is a flood of news stories about town-hall meetings across the country flooded with angry voters, reminiscent of the anti-Obamacare town halls of the summer of 2009.

Groups that favor immigration reform are planning their own massive mobilization for the congressional recess -- a once-informal period that has turned into a political pressure point. From Hispanic groups to local chambers of commerce, they're planning a large-scale deployment of activists from across the political spectrum.

But Beck, a bespectacled 65-year-old Sunday-school teacher and former newspaper reporter, is ready to match this blitz. "It's interesting," he said. "I keep reading about the plans the other side has, and I go, check, check, check. Get people to town-hall meetings. Get people visiting the offices. Keep communicating in all the ways you communicate -- the phone calls, the faxes, the emails."

The movement in favor of immigration reform unites Democrats and Republicans, business and unions, churches and human-rights activists. More than 400 companies and groups, from Adobe to the Washington Farm Bureau, recently signed a pro-reform letter to congressional leaders. Beck's side of the immigration debate is not that kind of broad coalition. It consists of about 2 million ordinary Americans, backed by a functional, unadorned website, an email list, and a lobbying office on Capitol Hill. There are local groups here and there and some Tea Party chapters that have taken up the fight. But of the groups devoted to grassroots activism against immigration reform, "there's no question we are by far the largest," Beck said.

To Beck, this is a David-and-Goliath story -- his humble legions pitted against the well-financed campaign of the "corporate lobby," which wants more immigrants chiefly to supply businesses with cheap labor. (The Sunlight Foundation estimates that $1.5 billion has been spent lobbying for immigration reform over the last four years; NumbersUSA consists of two affiliated nonprofits with a shared annual budget of about $6.5 million, according to public filings.) To his opponents, the group's ties to white supremacism prove that it is merely a front for racist hatred, a charge Beck strenuously denies.

It is a small operation with undeniably fringe views. And yet it's not at all far-fetched to think that NumbersUSA will win this fight. After all, they've done it before.

An Unorthodox Ideology
Opposition to "amnesty" -- that is, a reform of the immigration system that allows most of the millions of current undocumented immigrants eventually to become citizens -- is generally considered a right-wing view. But NumbersUSA's roots are more unorthodox than that -- in the population-control movement that has counted environmentalists and abortion-rights activists among its allies. When Beck started the group in 1996, he was working for John Tanton, a reclusive 79-year-old ophthalmologist who lives in rural Michigan and once founded local chapters of the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood.

Tanton has also left a long paper trail of eugenicist, anti-Semitic, and white-supremacist views. According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Tanton has a record of "fretting about the 'educability' of Latinos, warning of whites being outbred by others, and publishing a number of white nationalist authors." He has also "corresponded with Holocaust deniers, former Klan lawyers and the leading white nationalist thinkers of the era." At the same time, he has raised millions for the network of organizations he founded to push his agenda -- primarily stopping immigration. NumbersUSA is the grassroots-activism arm; there's also the Center for Immigration Studies, a D.C. think tank, and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an activist organization labeled a hate group by the SPLC.

Republican politicians opposed to amnesty often insist that what they oppose isn't immigration but lawbreaking; they are the "party of legal immigration," they stress. That is not the line taken by Tanton and his disciples, however. They oppose immigration, period, legal or illegal. They believe the U.S. should simply let fewer people in, by whatever means. That's where the name NumbersUSA comes from: They seek to radically curtail the "population boom" created by an influx of foreign migrants. Beck travels the country with an Al Gore-style slideshow on the dangers of out-of-control population growth, the climax of which is a demonstration involving gumballs. The original 1996 video has been viewed more than 6 million times online; an updated version posted in 2010 has 1.5 million YouTube views.

Immigration is an issue on which reasonable people can disagree, and it's tempting to view Beck and his allies as merely the radical fringe -- the ugly but marginal elements to which more legitimate opposition groups get unfairly tied. But the "legitimate opposition" doesn't exist. There aren't any prominent groups opposed to immigration reform but separate from the Tanton network and its radical population-reduction ideals. A recent analysis of national broadcast advertising found that, through June, $838,000 had been spent on television ads opposing immigration reform, including $457,000 by NumbersUSA, $256,000 by FAIR, and $126,000 by another Tanton-tied group, Californians for Population Stabilization. And that's it. These groups aren't the seedy underbelly of the movement against immigration reform; they are the movement against immigration reform.

"You can tell from the polling on this issue that there is a sizable constituency, especially among Southern Republicans, that does not want amnesty or any pathway to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants, said Heidi Beirich, who studies anti-immigrant activism for the SPLC. "But there are no organizations that represent them except this handful that are all basically rooted in racism and extremism."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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