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Faced with increasing competition and a new round of border paramilitary vigilantism (this time fueled by QAnon), the oldest anti-immigrant group in the country is returning to mobilizing grassroots nativism for the first time in over a decade. Recent moves also shed light on the organization’s transformation since the 2019 death of its founder, John Tanton.

There are already signs of increasing nativism. In January, America’s Voice published a report on how the nativist “Replacement Theory” has become a central organizing principle of the GOP. This spring, a growing number of reports of QAnon believers joining far-right vigilantes on the Southern border began to surface. Not to be left out, FAIR is attempting to get into the mix.

What Happens in Vegas

On June 17-18, 2022, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is scheduled to hold its Western Regional Grassroots Conference, “Combatting Biden’s Reckless Immigration Policies,” at the Treasure Island Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.

FAIR emails promoting the event suggest the agenda will focus on “how to organize and fight back before we lose our communities!” In typically conspiratorial fashion, FAIR also claimed, “Experts will expose what the media refuses to share about our southwest border crisis.”

Scheduled speakers include:

  • Bristol County, MA, Sheriff Tom Hodgson,
  • Former DEA Special Ops Division Agent Derek Maltz,
  • FAIR Senior Fellow/Former Acting Commissioner of US CBP, Mark Morgan,
  • President National Border Patrol Council, Brandon Judd,
  • FAIR Media Director, Ira Mehlman,
  • America’s Real Voice “Chasing Freedom” host Ben Bergquam,
  • Founder of Parents Against Illicit Narcotics, Virginia Krieger.

A search of FAIR’s newsletter archive finds that the Las Vegas meeting will be the first regional grassroots meeting conducted by FAIR since 2005, when they held a regional gathering in Chicago. The 2005 meeting marked the beginning of a period of rapid growth of grassroots anti-immigrant activity.

It was also the first year FAIR held their “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” event in Washington DC. What started as an effort to bring grassroots anti-immigrant activists to lobby Congress morphed into a right-wing talk-show host event over the years. Over the fourteen times FAIR held Hold Their Feet to the Fire events, it went from 18 talk-show hosts gathered to interview anti-immigrant influencers in 2005 to a high of 70 in 2019. The move away from grassroots activism wasn’t just reflected in FAIR events. It was part of a more significant organizational shift.

Fertilizing the Grassroots

Since founding the Federation for American Immigration Reform in 1979, Michigan ophthalmologist John Tanton nurtured the anti-immigrant movement into a sprawling network of organizations and front groups to push anti-immigrant politics into the mainstream. One of Tanton’s most significant contributions to nativist politics was the cultivation of state and local grassroots activism.

For years, the organizations led by Tanton provided funding and technical support to state and local anti-immigrant groups, including paramilitary vigilante groups like the Minutemen. From California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994 to the repeated defeat of comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, grassroots activism was an essential part of the Tanton playbook.

At its height in 2007, the network Tanton cultivated had a base of as many as 1.2 million supporters and over 400 local groups.

After the 2007 victories, FAIR’s focus on building grassroots groups waned. Several elements contributed to the shift. First, FAIR had new leadership. Julie Kirchner, an attorney by training who didn’t have the same relationship with grassroots groups, replaced FAIR’s longtime executive director, Dan Stein.

Second, grassroots anti-immigrant activism suffered a further setback in 2009 when nativist vigilantes led by a one-time member of the Minutemen brutally murdered 29-year-old Raul Flores Jr. and his nine-year-old daughter, Brisenia Flores. See David Neiwert’s 2013 book, And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border, for more on the incident.

Third, the rise of the Tea Party in 2009 swept up many of the remaining grassroots activists. As IREHR documented in Beyond FAIR: The Decline of the Established Anti-Immigrant Organizations and the Rise of the New Nativism, by 2011, one in five local and state anti-immigrant group leaders jumped over to the Tea Party. Moreover, Tea Party nationalism thoroughly embraced anti-immigrant activism alongside many other issues.

By 2010-11, the number of grassroots anti-immigrant groups plummeted nearly seventy percent from 2007, down to 121. With a few notable exceptions, like Oregonians for Immigration Reform, most of those groups are gone now, too.

During the early part of the Trump administration, FAIR pivoted away from opposition to a “focus on building on the momentum of the most recent election cycle in which voters made it clear that immigration reform starts with protecting the interests of the American people.” As a result, FAIR controlled the nativist pipeline to the White House.

With Trump out of the White House and the pipeline spigot turned off, FAIR is returning to the tactics of the past.

The Emergence of the Post-Tanton Anti-Immigrant Establishment

The event comes one month after FAIR announced the formation of a new “Border Security Coalition.” The coalition includes some of FAIR’s old anti-immigrant friends, like NumbersUSA, Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime, and the Remembrance Project.

However, it also includes several #MAGA America First-style groups, including the America First Policy Institute, the Center for Renewing America, the Claremont Institute, the Conservative Partnership Institute, and the Heritage Foundation.

Gone are the Tanton trappings of pseudo-environmentalism to cloak white nationalism. Instead, the new FAIR coalition embraces the America First-style “cruelty is the point” racism that ushered in the bigoted Muslim ban and disastrous family separation policies.

IREHR will be watching these developments closely. In the coming days, we’ll also do a deep dive into the groups in the new FAIR coalition and another emerging anti-immigrant coalition that left FAIR out. Stay tuned.

Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

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