Our VoiceImmigration

Mr. Kobach, Was John Tanton An Economist?

Brian Schultz • May 05, 2011

On Tuesday, May 3, the popular syndicated program Intelligence Squared U.S. featured Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo. In an episode entitled “Don’t Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses,” the two politicians represented the restrictionist side of a two hour immigration debate, at the end of which the audience voted for the side they felt best represented their views.

It initially seemed strange that such a show would have any space for these two figures clearly outside the “mainstream,” but the deft manner in which they concealed their more extreme beliefs betrayed a pragmatic angle to their appearance.

It’s true that both have been affiliated with the controversial Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) founded by white nationalist, John Tanton. Kobach, who authored Arizona’s SB 1070, is counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), an organization that writes and lobbies for anti-immigrant legislation on FAIR’s behalf; Tancredo founded the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, a group that has received support from Tanton and FAIR.

Yet, they abandoned their affiliation for an evening.

They only mentioned FAIR through an elaborate melee of statistics and numbers, wherein they chose to cite some of the organization’s reported findings. Tancredo and Kobach framed immigration not in terms of ideology, but fiscal burden and cold economic “fact.” To accomplish this, they largely relied on a recent report from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)—another organization founded and funded by John Tanton—which claims that undocumented immigrants consume state welfare resources in a ratio dramatically outweighing the tax-paying public.

At one point, Kobach even evoked the words Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, stating that “you cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state”—an oft-brandished blurb among anti-immigration ideologues. But this reference does a little more than he intends.

It seems that Kobach wants the adage to buttress his arguments about the purported cost-benefit offset that immigrants incur. But Friedman didn’t object to immigration in the way Kobach and Tancredo would like; in fact, he had insisted on the importance of immigration. By quoting him, Kobach merely reminds us that many economists revile the existing “welfare state” bureaucracy, a fact that actually undermines his own argument.

In repeatedly invoking statistics about public benefit usage, Tancredo and Kobach (and for that matter, CIS) merely opine that welfare is fine, so long as it is used by us; that’s not the austere reasoning of an economist, but the loaded reasoning of a nationalist.

But still, Kobach wanted his audience to think that he and the Immigration Reform Law Institute represent the interest of Americans in crisis, and cited his work in Hazelton, Pennsylvania to corroborate. If the issues are purely fiscal, perhaps he would have mentioned that the small town ended up paying him $55,000, and its taxpayers now foot the bill for $2.4 million in legal fees after his legislation was struck down—one case in a growing trend.

Of course, it’s not about the money. It’s about Kobach and Tancredo positing an “inside” and an “outside” to American identity and restricting citizenship to those fitting their chauvinistic criteria. As both had no qualms with quoting CIS and FAIR, it should be apparent that their position is informed by bigoted rhetoric.

Yet, when one audience member questioned Kobach’s connection to FAIR and its ties to white nationalism, moderator John Donvan (ABC News) told her that the question was impertinent to the nature of the forum. Probing a relationship between white nationalism and people seeking to halt the influx of minority populations; how, exactly, is that irrelevant? This is merely an example of FAIR and its affiliates legitimating their program by appropriating an argument that, in reality, has almost nothing in common with their ends.

Especially now, economic worries easily stir the American populace. Citing biased statistical reports by an organization with a well-publicized anti-immigrant agenda, however, does not suggest an actual interest in the field. At the very least, Kobach might have quoted an economist that would have agreed with him. Instead, the financial argument is nothing but an ornament to the same old nationalist argument.

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