Backlash on the border

An anti-immigrant ballot initiative with ties to racist groups threatens to split the GOP and derail Bush's chances in Arizona.

Topics: Paul Shirley, John McCain, R-Ariz.,

In the third and final presidential debate in Tempe, Ariz., George W. Bush and John Kerry were called upon to explain their positions on immigration, an issue so hotly debated in Arizona that debate moderator Bob Schieffer remarked, “Mr. President, I got more e-mail on this question this week than on any question.” In his response, Bush focused on his support for a guest worker program for undocumented immigrants “that allows a willing worker and a willing employer to mate up.” His mention of the program was surprising — since he first proposed it in his State of the Union address last January, he has carefully avoided discussing it, even when trolling for Latino votes on the campaign trail.

Bush’s reticence is well advised. His initial proposal of the program sparked a bitter backlash from the traditionalist, anti-immigration wing of his party that threatened to shatter his grass-roots base. Three weeks after Bush’s State of the Union address, at a House Republican retreat, angry conservative members of Congress surrounded presidential advisor Karl Rove and demanded that the White House bury the guest worker plan.

Thanks to Bush’s ensuing silence on immigration reform, the degenerating situation in Iraq and a grinding presidential race, the intraparty conflict Bush’s proposal caused has largely subsided. But in Arizona, where rapidly changing demographics and a constant stream of Mexicans and Central Americans crossing the border into the state have inspired a wave of public resentment, the anti-immigration backlash is still gaining momentum. It has propelled a divisive anti-immigrant ballot proposition that is using anti-elitist populism and coded racial appeals to harvest votes from fearful and frustrated Arizonans. Some of the proposition’s supporters are even working to defeat Bush in Arizona. While it’s hard to gauge how much impact they are having, the furor over immigration could spell trouble for the GOP — not only by weakening Bush’s base but also by awakening the sleeping giant of Arizona politics — Latino voters, most of whom are Democrats.

“Bush brought the immigration debate to the table. But he’s scared now because he’s gotten so much blow-back from his own party,” said Virginia Abernethy, a Vanderbilt University emeritus professor and self-described “ethnic separatist” who edits the journal of the Council of Conservative Citizens, self-advertised as a “European-American rights” group. “And now,” she told me, “I think we’re getting to a tipping point where the base will not vote for a politician who doesn’t represent their views on immigration.”

In July, Abernethy was appointed national chairwoman of the campaign for the Arizona ballot initiative, Proposition 200. The proposition would bar undocumented immigrants from receiving a host of public services and, because of an unfounded assumption by its proponents that undocumented immigrants are voting in state elections, would require Arizonans to prove their citizenship when they vote.

An anthropologist at the center of the paleoconservative intellectual movement for over 30 years, Abernethy has played a key role in defining the new anti-immigration movement’s ideas and strategies. She’s the “grand dame” of the movement, says Prop. 200 director Kathy McKee. Prop. 200 is also being used as a vehicle by America’s largest anti-immigration organization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, which has spent years trying to secure Arizona as a platform for its nationwide organizing efforts.

Opposing the initiative are not only Latino civil rights groups like National Council of La Raza and liberal unions like the Service Employees International Union but also Arizona’s political establishment. Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, the conservative Arizona Chamber of Commerce and the state’s entire congressional delegation, including Sen. John McCain, all vehemently oppose it. They argue that Prop. 200 will wreck Arizona’s business climate while imposing onerous requirements on the state’s residents by, for example, threatening public employees who fail to report any suspected undocumented immigrant in their midst with up to four months in jail. The opposition also claims that by forcing Arizonans to prove their citizenship before voting, Prop. 200 would make absentee balloting and clipboard registration impossible. And they say the proposition would put all Arizonans in danger by barring undocumented immigrants from receiving immunizations and requiring firefighters to verify a resident’s citizenship before putting out a fire in his or her home.

“What Prop. 200 will really do is, in effect, poison our own well to stop other people from drinking our water,” said Steve Roman, a Republican consultant working on behalf of those opposing Prop. 200. “The biggest unintended consequence is that it will take the focus off of real immigration reform, which must take place at the federal level.” Asked if he’s concerned that Bush has studiously avoided discussing immigration reform on the campaign trail, Roman paused before carefully replying, “I am not focused on anything other than this proposition specifically.”

Despite the breadth of the opposition, encompassing Democrats and Republicans, labor and business groups, and a blitz of anti-Prop. 200 ads starring the popular McCain, supporters still outnumber opponents by 42 percent to 29 percent, according to a poll conducted on Oct. 11 by Northern Arizona State University. “People in Arizona believe illegal immigration is a significant problem, and they perceive this proposition as being an anti-immigration bill, whether it is or not. In other words, it’s the only thing out there that lets them voice their frustration,” said Bruce Merrill, an ASU political science professor who has also done polling on Prop. 200.

Prop. 200 advocates call their opponents a “cheap-labor lobby” that is threatening the working class, and routinely portray undocumented immigrants as criminals. In doing so, the Prop. 200 campaign has assiduously cultivated the support of what sociologist Donald Warren termed “Middle American radicals,” or MARs. “MARs are a distinct group partly because of their view of government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously,” Warren wrote in his 1976 book, “The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation.” “If there is one single summation of the MAR perspective, it is reflected in [the] statement … the rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.” This group, historically assuming varying demographic forms but now generally white and middle or working class, is defined by its belief that it is squeezed between a powerful, internationalist elite and a besieging “other,” sometimes possessing characteristics like dark-hued skin, criminality and subversive intent.

Sam Francis, an influential paleoconservative columnist who was fired a decade ago by the Washington Times for defending slavery, now works with Abernethy as editor of the Council of Conservative Citizens’ journal and is active with anti-immigration groups like the American Immigration Control Foundation. He has referred to the movement’s appeal to Middle American radicals as the “sandwich strategy.”

Francis and Abernethy’s Council of Conservative Citizens, which evolved from the race-baiting White Citizens Councils that battled integration in the South, was active in George Wallace’s presidential campaigns and in the anti-busing demonstrations of the early 1970s. Wallace carried five Southern states in his 1968 independent presidential bid by harnessing the resentment of socially conservative whites against flag-burning radicals, civil rights protesters and the federal government. The same strategy undergirded the anti-busing demonstrations, when urban, ethnic whites took to the streets to battle the inner-city blacks and “limousine liberals” who were trying to forcibly integrate their schools.

Abernethy, who was on a fellowship at Harvard Medical School at the height of Boston’s anti-busing demonstrations, said it is that experience that informs her understanding of anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona today. “These lower-middle-class people saw their schools and their values under threat,” Abernethy said of the anti-busing protesters. “It is always people with moderate resources who want to be upwardly mobile who see themselves under threat when people who are not like them come into their community, or when people threaten their jobs because they’re willing to work for less with no benefits. So I think [Arizona is] somewhat like Boston. In Arizona, because of the language issue and the voting issue, resentment may be more intense.”

According to ASU’s Merrill, Prop. 200 supporters are more likely to be conservative Republicans than Democrats, are less likely than Prop. 200 opponents to have a high level of formal education, and are most likely to live in the most urbanized area of the state, Maricopa County, which contains Phoenix, its sprawling suburbs and nearly 50 percent of Arizona’s voting population.

Another likely factor in Prop. 200′s popularity is the huge migration of retirees to Maricopa County and greater Arizona in recent years. A 2002 study by ASU’s School of Public Affairs showed that nearly half of Arizona’s retirement age population is from out of state and that 85 percent of the retirees are white. By 2050, the study predicts, the state’s retirement population will have tripled to 3 million. This swelling population has fueled an increasing demand for new housing, a phenomenon that, ironically, is luring droves of Mexican migrant laborers to the state’s metropolitan areas to fill construction jobs.

Democratic state Rep. Tom Prezelski considers Arizona’s out-of-state retirees a wellspring of support for the anti-immigration movement. “I think Prop. 200 is strongest in retirement communities and some of the more transient, faster-growing areas. People who haven’t lived here that long and don’t understand our history or culture, they walk in here thinking there’s some kind of conspiracy going on,” Prezelski said. “I don’t think the retirement community mentality can allow for a full understanding of what’s going on. They tend not to look beyond that oasis.”

Arizona’s retirees are notorious for backing tough law-and-order measures. In Maricopa County, they are among the most fervent supporters of country sheriff Joe Arpaio, a draconian figure who makes male prisoners wear pink underwear and once installed webcams in his jail, allowing Internet users to view female inmates using the toilet. Retirees’ “biggest concern is crime and violence, and that’s why they love Joe Arpaio,” Merrill explained. “He talks the language that they like. The way immigration issues are presented, they’re framed in terms of crime and violence, so they support it.”

Indeed, Prop. 200 director McKee, herself a Phoenix-area retiree, named the measure “The Arizona Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.” She has also asserted that “for a good proportion of these people [undocumented immigrants], the American dream is crime and welfare, not jobs.”

Abernethy has used somewhat more imaginative language to boost Prop. 200. In an article for the anti-immigrant webzine VDare, Abernethy attacked the proposition’s labor union opponents: “Today’s unionistas support mass immigration because poor and uneducated immigrants are potential recruits.” In her articles for paleoconservative journal Chronicles and the Council of Conservative Citizens’ Citizens’ Informer, of which she is editor, Abernethy charges Latin American immigrants with everything from causing California’s 2001 power crisis to driving untold numbers of middle-class whites into homosexual lifestyles. Her menacing portraits of Latin American immigrants and their powerful friends conspiring to leave the average Joe out in the cold perfectly reflect the “sandwich strategy.”

Alexis Mazon, chairwoman of the Coalition to Defeat Prop 200, a Tucson grass-roots group, said, “The backers of Prop. 200 have taken advantage of people’s anger about a host of complex problems to pin the blame on our most vulnerable group, which is migrant workers. This isn’t original, nor is it surprising. But it’s an incredibly effective tactic and it’s worked again and again throughout American history.”

Although Prop. 200 has benefited from the support of FAIR, which spent approximately $500,000 last spring on the signature-gathering drive that ensured the measure a place on the November ballot, FAIR recently disavowed any connection with Prop. 200′s grass-roots leadership after FAIR waged a failed court battle to seize control of the campaign last spring. The disavowal was couched in personal attacks on McKee and the controversial Abernethy designed to make FAIR look like the moderate wing of the Prop. 200 campaign. In a July press release, FAIR called Abernethy’s ethnic separatist views “repugnant” and “divisive” and dubbed McKee’s behavior “inexplicable and erratic.”

Given FAIR’s long history of involvement with both women, however, the press release stretches the limits of credulity. Not only has FAIR’s founder, John Tanton, published Abernethy’s polemical studies in his Social Contract Press journal, but he has been a board member of an anti-immigration outfit she has directed, Population Environment Balance. Meanwhile, on the “Get Involved” section of its Web site, FAIR still lists McKee among its national network of grass-roots activists.

If there is anything that truly distinguishes FAIR from Prop. 200′s leadership, it isn’t ideology but, rather, the scope of the two groups’ ambitions. McKee’s objectives with Prop. 200 are entirely parochial, while for FAIR, Prop. 200 represents the best chance to secure Arizona as a beachhead for its national agenda. “Arizona has become an important bellwether,” said Devin Burghart, a coordinator for the Chicago-based Center for New Community, which monitors the national anti-immigration movement. “FAIR hopes to use the state as a platform to roll out their arguments to the entire country, either to push measures similar to Prop. 200 in other states or use it as a means to pressure Congress to take action on immigration.”

FAIR is backing a handful of anti-immigration congressional candidates nationwide. Its star candidate is Kris Kobach, a Republican running to unseat Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore in Kansas’ 3rd District. Kobach is serving as FAIR’s attorney in a contentious court battle the group is waging to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving in-state tuition rates at public colleges in Kansas. A former general counsel to Attorney General John Ashcroft, the youthful, handsome Kobach not only is the darling of the anti-immigration movement but is being groomed as a future Republican leader. He was even awarded a coveted speaking role at the Republican National Convention in New York. On the opening day, Kobach took to the podium to call for the deployment of the U.S. Army along the U.S.-Mexican border to stop immigrant border crossers, in a bold rebuke of the party’s more moderate immigration platform. (The national press ignored Kobach and missed the simmering issue.)

Yet far from being isolated for his hard-line views, Kobach got a visit from Vice President Cheney, who came to his district to campaign for him. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert also went out of his way to endorse him.

Back in Arizona, the anti-immigration movement is continuing to harness resentment of Bush’s guest worker proposal, and some activists are even campaigning against the president. Ron Prince, who worked with FAIR on numerous failed anti-immigrant ballot measures in California, has launched a radio ad campaign in Arizona that encourages voters to punish Bush for his proposal by ousting him from office. “With this contest, where both Kerry and Bush are standing on the edge of the cliff, just one little push could make all the difference,” Prince told the North County Times, a conservative Southern California daily.

While the effect that Prince’s ads and the Prop. 200 campaign will have on Bush’s chances in Arizona is unclear, a poll released after the second presidential debate shows that Kerry has pulled within striking distance of Bush after slipping badly in September. According to Northern Arizona State’s poll, Bush leads Kerry 49 percent to 45 percent — a net gain of five points for Kerry since the first debate. And now that Bush reiterated his support for the guest worker plan in the final presidential debate (held in the heart of Arizona), Prop. 200 could gain increased momentum.

Even if Arizona’s anti-immigration backlash doesn’t derail Bush in the state this year, it is certain to spell trouble for Republicans in the future by driving a higher share of the state’s swelling, mostly Democratic Latino population to the polls. “The power elite in Arizona is made up of older white, Republican businesspeople and the Christian right, and their strategy has always been to never let anything like Prop. 200 get on the ballot because they don’t want to give the lower socioeconomic groups and minorities the motivation” to vote against them, said ASU’s Merrill. “Latinos basically don’t vote here. If they ever get to the point of becoming more politicized, in a decade they’re going to control politics in the state. So the elite wants to let a sleeping dog lie.”

If voters approve Prop. 200, critics of the measure say it’s so poorly worded — the term “public benefit,” for instance, is never clearly defined in the proposition — that it is unlikely to withstand judicial review. But if Prop. 200 is approved and judged legal by Arizona’s Supreme Court, the Center for New Community’s Burghart said it could add more fuel to the flames of Arizona’s anti-immigration backlash — and serve as an instrument of further polarization.

“What the Prop. 200 people have done throughout their campaign is detract from the real issues that are important in Arizona. It’s clear the issues people are concerned about are the issues that Prop. 200 doesn’t really address,” Burghart said. “What you have, then, is a self-fulfilling prophecy where even if [Prop. 200] does stay on constitutional grounds, when people realize it doesn’t solve any of these problems, it’s only going to intensify their frustration.”

Max Blumenthal is an award winning journalist and the bestselling author of "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the movement that shattered the party"

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