FAIR's big play: Onetime fringe group hopes to drive Donald Trump's immigration policy

FAIR cloaks its racialized anti-immigrant policy proposals in bland wonkery — and it has Donald Trump's ear

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 6, 2016 10:00AM (EST)

Armed anti-Muslim protestors stand across the street from a mosque during a demonstration in Richardson, Texas, Dec. 12, 2015.   (AP/LM Otero)
Armed anti-Muslim protestors stand across the street from a mosque during a demonstration in Richardson, Texas, Dec. 12, 2015. (AP/LM Otero)

Last week a group called the Federation for American Immigration Reform (or FAIR for short) released a proposal titled "Immigration Priorities for the 2017 Presidential Transition." At first blush, the document — which is aimed at influencing the immigration policy of Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress — looks like a bland policy proposal, full of facts and figures and formatted to look sensible and legalistic.

But if you get past the bland presentation and read the actual text, the radical, nativist implications become clear — and terrifying. FAIR wants to end birthright citizenship, institute a policy of mass deportation and make it impossible for undocumented immigrants to gain any kind of legal status.

In addition, the group wants to put draconian caps on legal immigration and further tighten existing immigration law. This isn't about some abstract commitment to upholding the law. Behind FAIR's professional, wonkish veneer, it's hawking a message closely akin to the white nationalism of Trump's angriest supporters that's apparently aimed at keeping the United States a white-dominated nation.

The scariest part is that members of FAIR, which used to be a fringe organization, have good reason to believe that President Trump and his allies in Congress will listen to their suggestions.

“It’s incredible how much of Donald Trump’s ear they have," Lizet Ocampo, the director of the Latinos Vote! program for People for the American Way, explained over the phone.

She noted that Trump had appointed Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and a national leader in anti-immigration politics, to his transition team. Kobach has deep ties to FAIR, having worked as counsel for its legal department, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, and helping draft for it the kind of draconian anti-immigration policies that FAIR advocates in its new proposal.

Ocampo pointed out that Kobach has leaked some of his immigration policy recommendations to the press, by allowing himself to be photographed recently oh-so-casually flashing his proposal toward the camera.

Trump is also tied to FAIR through Sen. Jeff Sessions, his controversial attorney general-designate, nominee, who regularly attends FAIR events and was a keynote speaker at a 2007 FAIR board meeting.

This matters because FAIR is, for all intents and purposes, a hate group. Its members dress up in suits and release official-looking brochures, but their entire purpose is to resist immigration, at least when the immigrants aren't white Europeans.

“FAIR presents itself as this legitimate, D.C. think tank, but you scratch the surface a little bit, and what you find is some of the ugliest nativist ideas in our history," Heidi Beirich, who heads the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, said in a phone interview. FAIR despises the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, Beirich said, because it allowed large amounts of nonwhite immigrants to enter the country. 

That law overturned overtly racist immigration quotas in place since the 1920s, making it possible for millions of people from Asia, Africa and Latin American countries to move to the United States.

The FAIR website is surprisingly blunt about the racial attitudes underpinning the group's objections to the 1965 law. "Immigration since 1965 has also profoundly changed the nation's racial and ethnic composition," FAIR's page on the act reads, claiming that recent immigrants are "generally less educated, lower skilled, and lower income" than the European immigrants that FAIR would clearly prefer.

The FAIR blueprint for Trump doesn't mention the 1965 act by name, but the proposals to restrict legal immigration would effectively repeal that legislation, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The hostility of FAIR to legal immigration stands out because it most starkly reveals a racialized agenda But it's also the part of FAIR's proposal least likely to be enacted. The rest of the proposal, which focuses on undocumented immigrants, is frightening precisely since there's a strong chance much of it will become actual legislation.

"FAIR’s proposal starts out by citing a flawed Heritage Foundation study on the fiscal costs of immigration, which was cowritten by a man who had promoted crackpot theories about racial difference in intelligence," Miranda Blue at Right Wing Watch wrote.

During Trump's first 100 days in office, FAIR wants the new president to "immediately revoke the orders authorizing the DACA" — or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that effectively grants legal status to many immigrant children brought to the United States before age 16 — and "deny federal funds to any state or local jurisdiction that refuses to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement authorities."

Both of those demands, if enacted, would cause widespread suffering and disruption, not just to immigrants but to the larger communities they live in.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program provides temporary legal status to undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children. These young people often have little or no memory of the country where they were born and in some cases may not even speak their native country's language. The program allows more than  700,000 people to live and work in the United States without threat of deportation. Despite all the Trump-fueled hysteria about "criminal" immigrants, no one with a felony conviction or a serious history of misdemeanor crime is eligible for for the DACA program.

Janet Napolitano, former secretary for Homeland Security, noted in The New York Times that she and President Barack Obama embraced policies like the DACA program because law enforcement should "focus on those immigrants who posed a national security or public safety threat, such as gang members and violent felons, and not on veterans, nursing mothers and those with longstanding ties to their communities."

Adrian Reyna, director of membership and technology strategies for United We Dream, said over the phone, “As someone who is undocumented and has lived in this country since I was 12 when I first moved here with my family, it’s a very terrifying thought about what this means to go back." He added, "I could be talking about why immigration is good for the United States in the economic context," noting, "I should not have to be explaining my humanity.”

Reyna pointed out that people with DACA permits hold many jobs in "critical industries, like medical professions, education professions, service professions." United We Dream has surveyed people who have participated in the DACA program and found that 46 percent of respondents said the status helped them become financially independent and 51 percent said they were helping support their families. 

Similarly troubling is FAIR's demand that the federal government withhold funding from "sanctuary cities," which has become a term used by conservatives to demonize cities that decline to enforce federal immigration law.

Ocampo instead prefers to refer to the "community trust policies" of cities. He noted that, contrary to what anti-immigration activists claim, the 300 cities with such policies are generally not trying to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. Instead city governments want their police departments to focus on fighting serious crime and not wasting time on policing people's immigration status.

Such policies help the police do their actual jobs, Ocampo added. “People are afraid to talk to the police, afraid to report crimes, afraid of being witnesses to a crime" if they think officers may turn them over to immigration authorities for doing so, he said. 

Compelling local law enforcement to act as de facto immigration agents has an added danger, Ocampo said, because this increases the likelihood of racial profiling. If police officers face possible financial penalties unless they start turning over people for deportation, they may start harassing people at random simply based on their appearance or the languages they speak.

None of that bothers the folks at FAIR, of course. This is an organization whose founder and current board member, John Tanton, wrote a 1986 memo to fellow anti-immigration activists stating, "As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?"

This is an organization whose current president, Dan Stein, said in 1994, "I blame ninety-eight percent of responsibility for this country's immigration crisis on Ted Kennedy and his political allies, who decided some time back in 1958, earlier perhaps, that immigration was a great way to retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance and hubris, and the immigration laws from the 1920s were just this symbol of that, and it's a form of revengism, or revenge, that these forces continue to push the immigration policy that they know full well are creating chaos and will continue to create chaos down the line."

It's tempting to put the blame solely on President-elect Donald Trump for the way such hard-line nativist beliefs have crept ever closer to the political mainstream. But as Ocampo has pointed out, the Republican Congress was enabling such views even before Trump barged onto scene with his allegations that Mexican immigrants were rapists and murderers.

In April 2015, House Republicans held hearings about whether to revoke the constitutional practice of birthright citizenship. In July of that year, the Senate had hearings with testimony that linked undocumented immigrants to crime; it invited relatives of people killed by undocumented immigrants to testify and to blame lax immigration standards for the crimes. The fact that immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than people born in the United States was brushed aside.

And in April of this year, despite the fact that Trump's xenophobic presidential campaign was already escalating racial tensions and provoking violent incidents, House Republicans held their own version of an immigrants-are-the-source-of-crime hearing, tapping many of the same people who showed up at the Senate hearing.

In the wake of the last presidential election, an "autopsy" released by the Republican National Committee had urged the GOP to back away from anti-immigrant sentiment and broaden its appeal to Latino voters by backing comprehensive immigration reform: "If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States, they will not pay attention to our next sentence," the report declared.

Reince Priebus, who led the Republican National Committee in recent years, will now be Trump's White House chief of staff as he is cozying up to the fringe nativist hysterics of the Republican far right. There's little reason to believe that congressional Republicans will offer any resistance to FAIR's blueprint for the Trump administration.

Salon repeatedly contacted FAIR to request an interview with a spokesperson or an official comment in another form. The organization did not respond.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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