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The Nativist Establishment

Nativism, active opposition to new immigrants and the changes they bring to the larger society, has been a part of American life since before the Anglo majority in the 1800s regarded Irish newcomers as pariahs. It was noticeably absent from most of the New Right in the mid-1970s and during the Reagan years. It was an observable element in the Klan-Aryan Nations white supremacist configuration during the same period, however. [1] Within the parameters of the mainstream conservative universe, nativism owed its re-emergence largely, but not exclusively, to the Federation for American Immigration Reform (hereinafter FAIR) and the many organizations it helped spin off–particularly after Californians passed the era-defining Proposition 187 in 1994.

The fact that FAIR’s founder, John Tanton, was animated by racist concerns has been a matter of the public record since at least 1988.[2] Nevertheless, FAIR has been enormously successful, both in Congress and in civil society, and Tanton has been considered the godfather of the modern anti-immigrant movement.
FAIR and its myriad cohorts, including NumbersUSA, Center for Immigration Studies, US Inc., Americans for Immigration Control, Californians for Population Stabilization, and the Minutemen, have formed the core of what IREHR has labeled the “Nativist Establishment.” This constellation of interwoven membership organizations, lobbies, think tanks and action-oriented coalitions has been a major force in American politics. During the George W. Bush presidency, it effectively exercised a veto over immigration reform by congress. It has been the impetus behind the introduction and passage of hundreds of pieces of onerous enforcement-only legislation at the state level. In the near future, the Supreme Court will determine the constitutionality of one of the most controversial pieces of this legislation, Arizona’s S.B. 1070, much like the Court did with Proposition 187 in 1994.

At its height in 2007-2008, this network had a base of as many as 1.2 million supporters and over 400 local groups.[3]

In recognition of the outsized role that FAIR and Tanton have played in this network, it has been referred to as The Tanton Network by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others. For the purposes of this report, however, it will be referred to as the Nativist Establishment, in part because we will discuss other organizational centers, particularly the Minuteman border vigilantes and the Federal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Coalition (FIRE Coalition). Also for the purposes of this report, it will be important to distinguish between the declining Establishment and the emerging new forces.

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Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind

Author Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind

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