The Anti-Immigration Movement: From Shovels to Suits

April 10, 2008

As millions of immigrants and their supporters took to the streets last year, the anti-immigration movement mobilized its own forces. The number of state and local anti-immigration groups in the United States has exploded, growing by 600% in the last two years. In 2005, there were fewer than 40 groups; today, there are more than 250.1

One fourth of the new groups are chapters of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps (MCDC), the volunteer paramilitary group that patrols the U.S.-Mexico border, builds fences, and notes the license plate numbers of contractors who hire undocumented workers.2 Its leader, Chris Simcox, has become a national icon, and locally, MCDC members are making their voices heard at protests, council meetings, and courthouses.

Although these armed vigilantes get most of the press, a national network of organizations working to end immigration has existed for decades. Today, 35 such groups, with a collective membership of between 600,000 and 750,000, work in research, advocacy, fundraising, and lobbying to influence state and federal policies.3 Some of the most salient include the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), English First, and NumbersUSA.

Ten groups channeled $4.2 million into anti-immigration lobbying in 2005, and nine political action committees raised $3.4 million for campaigns in 2006. In Congress, the movement’s growth is reflected in the Immigration Reform Caucus, which has grown from 16 members in 1999 to more than 90 today.

Not all anti-immigrant groups dedicate themselves solely or specifically to the immigration question. The movement is not unified in the traditional sense; groups promote different policy positions, and no umbrella organization unites them.

Despite their differences, they all advocate restricting legal immigration and deporting undocumented immigrants. These goals are also those of both the Minutemen and white supremacists, and this confluence of interests has made for a troubling alliance: The leadership of each of the major anti-immigrant organizations is linked in some way to hate groups.4

There is more evidence for the connections between the U.S. anti-immigrant movement and organized extremists than there is room to explore in this article.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Alabama; the Center for New Community (CNC) in Chicago; and the International Relations Center (IRC) in Silver City, New Mexico, compile most of this information, profiling the movement and its leaders and uncovering their links to each other and beyond.

Six anti-immigrant organizations focus on promoting the English language and campaigning against the translation of official documents. Another six deal with population control, arguing that immigration is environmentally and economically detrimental. A few wage legal battles against local government or employers of undocumented immigrants, and others focus on grassroots and vigilante action. Finally, there is the anti-immigrant media, which runs the gamut from fringe to mainstream and includes one book publisher; several magazines, Web sites, and blogs; and ubiquitous pundits like Pat Buchanan, Ann Coulter, Lou Dobbs, Michelle Malkin, and Bill O’Reilly.

At the far-right end of the spectrum, we find white nationalists, who think nonwhite immigrants threaten Euro-American culture. They include the Council of Conservative Citizens, founded in 1988 by members of the segregationist White Citizen’s Council and of the National Alliance, which sells stickers and magnets on its Web sites that read, “Bring Our Troops Home and Put Them on the Mexican Border!”

“In the past decade, white supremacists have gone from bashing black people to bashing Hispanic people,” says Heidi Beirich, the deputy director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.

Also on the far right, street and border vigilantes, among them the MCDC and the Minuteman Project, barely conceal their hatred of undocumented immigrants and Latinos. (These two grassroots groups began as one in 2005 but quickly split and now continue their work separately.) Their members have been tied to hate groups and stand accused of using excessive force on the border.5

At the other end of the anti-immigration spectrum, mainstream think tanks like FAIR and CIS in Washington, D.C., put a respectable face on bigotry. Leaders of both organizations are called in as experts in Congress, they publish reports, and they tend to focus on the broad immigration debate in the media and in Washington. They frame their positions for a mainstream audience, but their records are not squeaky-clean.

FAIR, probably the most influential anti-immigration think tank, was co-founded in 1979 by John Tanton, a retired eye surgeon from Michigan who is linked to more than a dozen other large organizations. He came to the anti-immigration movement through his concern about population growth and the environment. He chaired the population committee of the Sierra Club in 1969, but when he couldn’t persuade the group to take an anti-immigrant position, he joined Zero Population Growth, eventually becoming its president. After co-founding FAIR, he went on to establish U.S. English in 1982, CIS in 1985, Social Contract Press in 1990, ProEnglish in 1993, and most recently NumbersUSA in 1996.

Tanton’s own views are not so hidden. In 1986 a memo he wrote—in which he wondered, “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?”—was leaked to the press, causing several people (including himself, Walter Cronkite, and Linda Chavez) to leave U.S. English.6 From 1985 to 1994 Tanton accepted $1.3 million on behalf of FAIR from the Pioneer Fund, a formerly Nazi organization that finances research in eugenics and IQ differences between races.7 Tanton also shares an office at Social Contract Press with Wayne Lutton, a writer who also sits on the board of the Council of Conservative Citizens and edits the anti-Semitic journal The Occidental Quarterly.

FAIR no longer receives money from the Pioneer Fund, but it has never offered to pay back its grants. Much of FAIR’s research centers on demonstrating that undocumented immigrants are a menace to society; according to two of its recent studies, undocumented immigrants kill more people in traffic accidents and are far more prone to crime than U.S. citizens.8

“FAIR pretend in their literature and lobbying that they are making their case based on economic studies, environmental and social effects, when their conclusions are actually based on ideological elements,” says Tom Barry of the International Relations Center.

A recent post on FAIR executive director Dan Stein’s blog (, “Calif. Medical Authorities Concerned About Immigrant Blood Donors,” attracted comments from people scared they would get parasitic diseases from undocumented immigrants. “Consider too the great increase in hepatitis A and B, drug resistant tuberculosis, and leprosy,” says one reader. “Think about this the next time you go out to eat at a restaurant that hires illegals that sweat into your soup!”9

Although Stein cannot be held responsible for the discussions in his online forum, he showed a remarkable tolerance for white supremacism when, in 2004, he attended a biannual conference sponsored by American Renaissance magazine, which according to its Web site “promotes a variety of white racial positions” and is edited by Jared Taylor, a renowned white nationalist (he also sits on the board of The Occidental Quarterly).10 That same year, Taylor’s New Century Foundation received $20,000 from the Pioneer Fund, according to their tax filings. Last year’s American Renaissance conference attracted such names as David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan; Dan Roodt, a South African writer who regrets the end of apartheid; and Nick Griffin, chairman of the racist British National Party.11

The Center for New Community’s director, Devon Burghart, says every national anti-immigrant organization in the United States has ties to hate groups. “I can’t think of one [that doesn’t],” he says. He adds that CIS is the closest to the mainstream. “But even they were originally spun from FAIR,” he says.

That may be the case, but the CIS’s anti-immigrant bona fides are clear: In 2004, the group’s annual media award went to Lou Dobbs. Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.)—Capitol Hill’s most militant anti-immigrant representative, who has warned that immigrant terrorists “are coming here to kill you and kill me and our families”—gave a speech at the ceremony and presented Dobbs with the award.12


On the right, it’s common to accuse the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups of exaggerating these links to extremist groups. Peter Brimelow, author of Alien Nation and editor of the Web site VDare, has called it a “guilt-by-association conspiracy theory”; many have accused the SPLC of profiting from the connections they find.13

Heidi Beirich of the SPLC says this is a ridiculous accusation. “Not everybody involved is a racist,” she adds, “but the kind of people we track don’t like immigration because they don’t want America to have a darker skin color.”

Tom Barry, director of Right Web, says it’s important to know what the links are, but warns it can be overdone. “The purpose is to understand who we are facing, not to label them all as nationalists,” he says.

He emphasizes that the anti-immigration movement spans various groups and agendas, and that some groups are more extreme than others. Whatever their differences, however, they frequently form coalitions for short- and long-term campaigns. As FAIR’s Web site puts it, “There are always people who support the right idea for the wrong reasons—but that doesn’t make the idea itself wrong.”14

This excuse rings hollow once you know a large part of the anti-immigration movement was created by a friend of white nationalists; that its leaders flirt with extremism; and that its organizations actively encourage the degradation of immigrants. Organizations like FAIR and others that operate in suits and ties rather than with shovels and guns provide a convenient cover for those who oppose immigration for “politically incorrect” reasons.

Thanks to the suits (and the media’s reckless compliance), there is a much higher degree of comfort speaking of undocumented workers as though they were all violent criminals and casually discussing deportation as an option. Considering there may be up to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, many with U.S. spouses and children, those who call for mass deportation are ruthless in their denial of how many lives it would destroy.15

There is not much more forward thinking about how a loss of undocumented labor would affect the U.S. economy either. Activists have aggressively denounced “greedy” employers of day laborers, but their economic analysis is shallow and xenophobic—they simply blame undocumented immigrants for society’s ills.

Yet it’s an effective strategy. People across the country are donating thousands of dollars to protect themselves against what they perceive as a growing national threat, and their names and addresses have become a shared currency of the movement. The MCDC and others have made their mailing lists available through right-wing direct-mail companies like Response Unlimited. According to that company’s records, many organizations, including FAIR, have rented the lists and used them for their own fundraising. The MCDC has also rented FAIR’s.16

No one knows how much money the MCDC has raised or whether it has been spent appropriately, but The Washington Times speculates it may be millions.17

The amount of money a special interest group spends on politics does not directly indicate the extent of its influence. But the millions of dollars being directed toward Washington, D.C., to support anti-immigrant advocacy, lobbying, and campaigns indicate the movement’s ambitions.

Even deeper pockets are supporting the effort. Twelve large foundations—among them the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Carthage Foundation—fund the bulk of right-wing advocacy, policy, and training, according to the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy.18 According to their tax filings, they also fund FAIR, CIS, the pro-English organizations, population-control groups, and other anti-immigrant entities as part of their broader strategy.

Money, of course, drives electoral politics, and the fact that anti-immigrant activists are both receiving funds from national groups and organizing locally increases their influence. FAIR, for example, spent $500,000 on a ballot initiative in Arizona in 2004, according to The American Prospect, and Federal Election Commission records show that in 2006 the MCDC gave more than $200,000 to election campaigns in Arizona, Nevada, and Michigan.19 And Team America—a political action committee founded by Tancredo and led by him and Bay Buchanan, sister of Patrick Buchanan—gave $5,000 last year to Minuteman Project leader Jim Gilchrist in support of his California congressional campaign.

With Tancredo having announced his bid for the 2008 presidential election, state elections like these could be significant for the movement. Anti-immigrant writers and activists are excited by this prospect; they know that even though Tancredo is unlikely to win, his campaign will push immigration higher on the political agenda.

Perhaps 2008 will be the year immigrants reclaim immigration reform as an issue of social and economic rights. But the scale and range of the anti-immigration movement should not be underestimated.


  1. “Mapping the New Nativism,” Center for New Community, January 11, 2007, _January_2007/Mapping_the_New_Nativism/1/.
  2. Ibid.
  3. The Center for New Community reached this estimate by examining the mailing lists available for rent from these groups.
  4. The FBI defines a hate group as an organization whose primary purpose is to promote animosity, hostility, and malice toward people belonging to a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnic/national origin that differs from that of the organization’s members.
  5. David Holthouse, “Arizona Showdown: High-powered Firearms, Militia Maneuvers and Racism at the Minuteman Project,” Southern Poverty Law Center, Intelligence Report, article.jsp?pid=915.
  6. John Tanton, “Memo to WITAN IV Attendees From John Tanton,” Intelligence Report, October 6, 1986,
  7. Max Blumenthal, “White Noise,” The American Prospect, August 31, 2004,
  8. “Unlicensed to Kill,” Federation for American Immigration Reform, September 2006,; Federation for American Immigration Reform, “People Who Violate Immigration Laws Are More Likely to Violate Other Laws, Finds the FAIR,” March 8, 2007,
  9. Dan Stein, “Calif. Medical Authorities Concerned About Immigrant Blood Donors,” The Dan Stein Report, March 17, 2007, archives/010165.html#comments.
  10. Ian Jobling, “Racial Heresies for the 21st Century,” American Renaissance, April 2004,
  11. Michael Laris, “Promoting ‘Preservation’ of Whites in Suit and Tie,” The Washington Post, February 26, 2006, content/article/2006/02/25/AR2006022501380.html.
  12. Max Blumenthal, “Republicanizing the Race Card,” The Nation, March 23, 2006,; Center for Immigration Studies, “2004 Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration,”
  13. Peter Brimelow, “Is VDARE.COM ‘White Nationalist’?” VDare, July 24, 2006,; Ken Silverstein, “The Church of Morris Dees,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2000.
  14. Federation for American Immigration Reform, “Answers to Tough Questions About Immigration,” March 15, 2007, name=team_team2167.
  15. Pew Hispanic Center, “Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.,” March 2, 2006, report.php?ReportID=61.
  16. Response Unlimited,, accessed March 23, 2007; Response Unlimited, usage.lasso?list=3003, accessed March 23, 2007.
  17. Jerry Seper, “Minutemen Not Watching Over Funds,” The Washington Times, July 20, 2006.
  18. National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, “The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations: Moving a Public Policy Agenda,” 1997,
  19. Ibid.

    Solana Larsen is an editor for in New York. She is also the founder and president of the Danish–Puerto Rican Society.

Tags: US immigration, US-Mexico border, anti-immigration movements, vigilantes

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.