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Enter Tea Party Nativism

Whatever the cause or causes of the decline in membership and organizational strength of the established anti-immigrant organizations, the Tea Party movement has captured much of the popular anti-immigrant sentiment. The Tea Parties have broadened the reach of this sentiment beyond the shores of the established centers. To a significant extent, the Tea Parties have usurped the Nativist Establishment and in the process swallowed up the many of its activists. And it has propelled the anti-immigrant movement as a whole forward into the 21st century.

From the beginning the leadership ranks of most of the national Tea Party factions have included nativist politics in their mix of issues. Moreover, opinion polls and other data indicate that there is a high level of anti-immigrant sentiment among Tea Party supporters. 

In recent months, the Occupy Wall Street protests have knocked the Tea Party movement out of its formerly prominent position in the news cycle. Around the same time, polling data began to show both an increase in opposition to the Tea Parties in the general population, as well as a small drop-off in support on the periphery of the movement. There are probably multiple causes for the rise in this disapproval, including buyers’ remorse after the 2010 elections, anger at the budget impasse in Congress last summer, and messages about the racism in Tea Party ranks. With the fall off the front page, some commentators have rushed to write the Tea Parties’ obituary.
Rumors of the death of the Tea Party, however, are greatly exaggerated. The core of the Tea Party movement has continued to expand in size during 2010 and 2011. And it has continued to expand its reach into the anti-immigrant universe.

As previously noted in IREHR’s 2010 report, Tea Party Nationalism, there are six different national Tea Party factions. The membership core has increased over 32% in size during the last year from 289,000 at the end of 2010 to over 380,000 at the end of 2011. These national network factions and their members are clearly defined, and can be clearly analyzed. There are also more than 3,000 identifiable local Tea Party groups.



A full financial picture of the Tea Party is hard to develop. Half of the six national Tea Party factions are for-profit corporations who do not open their books to the public. A fourth faction is listed as a non-profit, but hasn’t released their financial filings. The data that is available, however, suggests that the Tea Party movement’s finances are trending up.

For the fiscal year ending May 31, 2010, the first year for which financial data is available, Tea Party Patriots brought in $706,966.[26] For the fiscal year ending May 31, 2011, the newly created Tea Party Patriots Foundation brought in income of $6,336,000 in its first year.[27]

FreedomWorks, one of the national groups that pre-dated the birth of the Tea Party, also benefited financially from the Tea Party explosion. Gross receipts for the two FreedomWorks nonprofit organizations, FreedomWorks Inc, and the FreedomWorks Foundation for 2008–the year before the Tea Parties emerged–were $7,495,442.[28] In 2009, that total increased to $9,028,594.[29] By 2010 (the last year for which financial data is currently available), receipts climbed to $13,805,635—an increase of over six million dollars in just two years.[30] The FreedomWorks Inc. PAC also grew. In 2008, the PAC reported just $497 in total contributions in 2008 and $222 in 2009.[31] In 2010, income shot up to $688,139.[32] Financial information for the new FreedomWorks super-PAC, FreedomWorks for America, was not yet available as of the end of 2011.

Like FreedomWorks, the PAC that created the Tea Party Express, the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, came into being before the birth of the Tea Party. In 2008, its income was $1,367,421, most of which it spent attacking then-candidate Barack Obama.[33] In 2009, contributions increased to $2,063,425.[34] In 2010, contributions skyrocketed to $5,621,499—a jump of 311% from 2008 to 2010. Year-end financial data is not yet available for 2011.[35]

Unlike the precipitous drop in funds for the Nativist Establishment, income grew rapidly for Tea Party groups during the same period, according to the available data. Adding up the numbers from nonprofit and political action committee sources, the Tea Party national factions finances over the period 2008-2010 grew from $8,862,863 to $25,763,135—an increase of 198%.

As IREHR noted in our 2010 report, Tea Party Nationalism, four of the five membership-based factions, have engaged in some form of anti-immigrant activism. So has the Tea Party Express, a political action committee. Indeed, one national faction, the 1776 Tea Party (also known as is actually run by leaders of Jim Gilchrist’s Minuteman Project. Gilchrist joined this faction in December 2010, after it became evident that the Minuteman grass roots was drying up and the Tea Parties were flourishing.

Picking up where Tea Party Nationalism reporting ended in mid-2010, further analysis of activity indicates that Tea Party nativism continued to grow throughout 2010 and 2011. Indeed, with the turn by national and state leaders toward state-level organizing in 2011, anti-immigrant politics were elevated on the Tea Party agenda.
During this period, Arizona was still ground zero in the fight over immigration, particularly after S.B. 1070 was signed into law on April 23, 2010. Officially called the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, S.B. 1070 makes it a state misdemeanor crime for an immigrant to be in Arizona without carrying the required documents, and obligates police to make an attempt to determine a person’s immigration status. Any person arrested cannot be released without confirmation of the person’s legal immigration status by the federal government. The law also prohibits state, county, and local officials from limiting or restricting “the enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law,” and provides that any legal Arizona resident can sue the agencies or officials in question to compel such full enforcement. It remains the broadest and strictest measure of its kind, and it is currently before the United States Supreme Court, which will render a decision on its constitutionality sometime in 2012.

In October 2010, the Tea Party Express, not a membership faction but a political action committee, featured arch-nativist Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County, Arizona to draw Tea Party crowds. At a Tea Party Express bus stop event in Las Vegas, Arpaio drew a throng of nearly two thousand people. He came onstage while a Tea Party band sang, “We stand with you Arizona / The rule of law in this land / What part of ‘illegal’ don’t they understand.” And Arpaio stoked the crowd with lurid tales of his border war.[36]

During the last half of 2010, five of the six factions actively supported S.B. 1070, and when immigrant rights groups launched a boycott of Arizona because of that legislation, the Patriot Action Network Tea Party faction joined with the John Birch Society and the Ten Amendment Center to sponsor a national conference on states’ rights “nullification” in Phoenix in January 2011.


Just a month later, in February 2011, Tea Party Patriots came to Phoenix for a national convention. The event drew as many as 2000 people. Despite the repeated Tea Party Patriot refrain that anti-immigrant politics weren’t part of the Tea Party agenda, the conference site was chosen specifically to support S.B. 1070 and nativism was front and center.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer opened up this convention by thanking the Tea Party, “You didn’t have to choose our home…I know you are here because we share a common cause in taking back our country. We want our borders secured. We want the federal government out of our daily lives.”[37] The event featured nativist luminaries including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and State Senator Russell Pearce. Tea Party Patriots also put anti-immigrant inspired voter suppression work high on the national organizational agenda at the convention.
In a similar vein, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reintroduced the DREAM Act, which made provision for otherwise undocumented young people to attend college, Tea Party groups mobilized their supporters to prevent it from coming to a vote. The national Tea Party Patriots and many of their local chapters, for instance, worked with the Nativist Establishment group NumbersUSA to turn up opposition. They inundated the phone lines of Republican Senators who had supported such measures in the past.

During the summer months of 2011, the fight shifted from Arizona to Alabama. On June 9, 2011 Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed into law H.B. 56. The law made it a crime to be without status, required law enforcement to check the papers of anyone suspected of being undocumented, mandated that public schools check the legal status of students, abrogated any contract made with an undocumented immigrant, and made it a felony for undocumented immigrants to contract with a government entity (including for such basic amenities as having water service).

As with Arizona, five of the six national Tea Party factions showed their support for Alabama’s new harsh law. They circulated petitions, and held rallies and similar support events across the country. Sensing the momentum built up by Arizona and Alabama, local Tea Party groups pushed similar legislation in dozens of states during the year.

Further, both the Patriot Action Network and Tea Party Nation continued to promote an explicitly racist brand of nativism. Tea Party Nation Founder Judson Phillips, for instance, called for a return to the racist 1924 National Origins Act, and warned that immigrants are causing “White Anglo-Saxon protestant extinction.” He called for gutting the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship rights.[38]

Not all the Tea Party national factions gravitated immediately to the nativist cause, however, and some groups attacked Dick Armey, the chair of FreedomWorks, for being “soft on immigration.”[39] In February 2011, FreedomWorks turned 180 degrees on the issue. They launched a new FreedomConnector website, which opened the floodgates to nativist activity. FreedomWorks promoted dozens of anti-immigrant Tea Party events in 2011.[40]

As IREHR has explored elsewhere, Tea Party ranks are permeated with concerns about race and national identity–-including immigration. From the beginning, Tea Partiers promoted a brand of nationalism that defined immigrants, people of color, poor people, liberals, trade union members, etc. as wholly un-American parasites.
Consider in this vein, the so-called Birtherism so popular in the Tea Parties. “Birtherism” is the belief that President Obama is not a natural-born American, and is thereby not constitutionally allowed to be president. Instead, Obama is foreign, un-American. At its core, this belief explicitly incorporates an anti-immigrant attack on the President and uses racist imagery to make its case. And it is still alive among the local Tea Party ranks. Five of the six national Tea Party factions have had “birthers” on their national staffs (four of the six still do). 

 Islamophobia has also taken root in the Tea Party, with all six national factions providing a platform to anti-Islam organizations. And Islamophobia also contains a nativist root.

Some Tea Party leaders have tried to pretend that nativism doesn’t exist in their movement. They contend that they are simply sticking to issues of “fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets,” not “social issues” like immigration. Some outside human rights observers have even argued that “the tea party and the anti-immigrant movement are far from a perfect union.”[41]

Combined with the high levels of identifiable nativist activity in the Tea Party, new survey data on the attitudes of Tea Party supporters further suggests that the Nativist Establishment and the Tea Party may be a much better fit than people think.

The University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality asked Tea Party supporters questions about immigration as part of its 2011 Multi-State Survey of Race and Politics. It found that Tea Party supporters were more likely than non-supporters to hold anti-immigrant attitudes.

When asked if immigrants “fail to adopt American life,” 68% of Tea Party “true believers” agreed with the statement, compared to 55% of “middle of the road” respondents, and 36% of “true skeptics” opposed to the Tea Party.[42] The “true believers” are most likely to comport with the strata that IREHR has identified as the enrolled core of the movement and the secondary circle of active sympathizers.

Asked if “immigrants are too powerful,” 54% of Tea Party “true believers” agreed with the statement, compared to 32% of “middle road” respondents, and just 17% of “true skeptics” opposed to the Tea Party.[43] The survey also asked about whether respondents favored repealing the birthright citizenship provisions found in the Fourteenth Amendment’s birthright citizenship protections. 56% of Tea Party “true believers” supported such a measure, compared to just 38% of “middle road” respondents and 39% of “true skeptics” opposed to the Tea Party.[44]

Similarly a recent Pew poll, found that “Tea Party supporters are 20 percentage points more likely than registered voters overall to say border security is the most important priority in dealing with illegal immigration.”[45] These opinion polls support IREHR’s contention that the Tea Parties have become significant centers for anti-immigrant sentiment. Further evidence shows that anti-immigrant activists have been inside Tea Party structures from the beginning.

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Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind

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