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Anti-immigrant group cloaks itself in progressive issues to spread xenophobia


Jill Garvey • Dec 30, 2010

A relatively unassuming group in Arlington, Virginia, has strategically shed far right characteristics in order to better incite xenophobia. Perhaps the most effective mobilizing weapon in John Tanton’s arsenal of organizations - all engineered to dehumanize immigrants - NumbersUSA’s success lies in its moderate veneer.

When John Tanton organizations like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)  came under fire for their anti-immigrant rhetoric, NumbersUSA didn’t defend its sister organizations; instead, it added a section to its website called “No to Immigrant Bashing.”

Currently, it even has a disclaimer at the bottom of its homepage that bills NumbersUSA as “pro-environment, pro-worker, pro-liberty and pro-immigrant,” despite content that is almost entirely anti-immigrant.

The group was born out of the friendship of its current executive director, Roy Beck, and the mastermind of the modern day anti-immigrant movement, John Tanton. Their relationship goes back at least 20 years, when Tanton hired Beck as a consultant.

In 1998, in a letter obtained by the Center for New Community, Tanton appointed Beck as his “heir apparent” at U.S., Inc. - the foundational funnel through which Tanton has created or supported dozens of anti-immigrant organizations. Back then, its unlikely Beck or Tanton had any inkling of how influential NumbersUSA would become.

But Tanton’s instincts about Roy Beck were spot on - he is pioneering a new kind of anti-immigrant movement, one that cloaks its xenophobia in progressive issues.

One can already see the genesis of NumbersUSA’s methods in spin-off groups like Progressives for Immigration Reform, led by former FAIR staffer Leah Durant.

Beck has certainly learned from Tanton’s mistakes. Tanton and other anti-immigrant leaders like Dan Stein and Mark Krikorian will occasionally let slip their white nationalist leanings, while Beck fastidiously steers clear of such missteps. Stein and Krikorian are still tapping out press releases for their respective organizations (FAIR and CIS), while NumbersUSA is releasing iPhone apps and developing an increasingly interactive website for its members.

Granted, this is what NumbersUSA was designed to do, mobilize anti-immigrant supporters. However, one can’t help but think the group’s tactics are a direct effort to circumvent the barriers which have hindered the anti-immigrant movement.

John Tanton envisioned a movement that would be considered the authority on immigration policy in the U.S. But much to his frustration, the American public has, as a whole, remained disdainful of his white nationalist roots.

Last April, FAIR president Dan Stein went on the Rachel Maddow Show to defend his organization from critics who say the group has an ongoing agenda rooted in the white nationalist ideology of its founder, John Tanton. Rather than refute those claims, Stein reinforced FAIR’s controversial history.

Now imagine if Roy Beck had been sent to do the same job. Based on NumbersUSA’s tactics, Beck would have tried to convince Rachel Maddow that they were on the same team.

NumbersUSA is certainly frightening in its ability to stealthily promote xenophobia; however, there are cracks in Beck’s well-crafted veneer.

In March 2010, for example, a NumbersUSA’s campaign was promoted by white nationalist David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The campaign was also featured on Stormfront, a leading white nationalist, white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and skinhead social networking forum.

Last year NumbersUSA created a members-only section on its website that evaluates members of Congress. It assigned Senator Roland Burris an F minus for his immigration voting record. Under a picture of Burris a NumbersUSA member wrote, “You have disgraced yourself and the (sic) all the people of IL, especially the Black citizens. We should welcome you home with Tar and Feathers.” Another member wrote, “Only when the people show up to REMOVE these treasonous crooks will justice be served! Bring back the rope!”

Roland Burris is African-American and despite the racist violence referred to in the comments, these threats remained on NumbersUSA’s website for nearly a month.

In September, Beck posted a blog article on NumbersUSA’s website attacking immigration reform advocates, stating that they “are killing” undocumented immigrants.Within hours of being posted the article’s language was altered and eventually taken down completely. This provided a rare glimpse into the group’s twisted rationale when it comes to immigraiton, but also illustrated its willingness to adapt.

NumbersUSA is a group that presents a credible threat to the prospect of a truly multiracial democracy. But that doesn’t mean the majority of Americans agree with its positions on immigration. And like all anti-immigrant groups that have come before, it can’t keep its true nature hidden forever.

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