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

Last week a group called the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) 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 document, 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, apparently aimed at keeping the United States a white-dominated nation.

The scariest part is that FAIR, which used to be a fringe organization, has good reason to believe that President Trump and his allies in Congress will listen to its 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, working as counsel for its legal department, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, and helping draft the kind of draconian anti-immigration policies that FAIR advocates in its new proposal.

Ocampo pointed out that Kobach had leaked some of his immigration policy recommendations to the press, by allowing himself to be photographed oh-so-casually flashing his proposal towards 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 the 2007 FAIR board meeting.

This matters because FAIR is, for all intents and purposes, a hate group. They 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 these 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 law by name, but the proposals to restrict legal immigration would effectively repeal the 1965 law, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson.

FAIR’s hostility to legal immigration stands out because it most starkly reveals the racialized agenda at stake here, but it’s also the part of the proposal least likely to be enacted. The rest of the proposal, which focuses on undocumented immigrants, is frightening precisely because 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 writes.

During Trump’s first 100 days in office, FAIR wants the new president to “immediately revoke the orders authorizing the DACA” — the law that effectively legalizes many immigrant children brought here 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.

DACA, 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 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 over 700,000 people to live and work here 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 DACA.

Janet Napolitano, former secretary for Homeland Security, notes in the New York Times that she and President Obama embraced policies like DACA 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.”

“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,” Adrian Reyna, director of membership and technology strategies for United We Dream, said over the phone. 

I could be talking about why immigration is good for the United States in the economic context and different contexts,” he added. “I should not have to be explaining my humanity.”

SReyna noted that people with DACA permits hold a lot of jobs in “critical industries, like medical professions, education professions, service professions.”

United We Dream surveyed DACA recipients 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 propagandistic term used to demonize cities that decline to enforce federal immigration law.

Ocampo prefers the term “community trust policies” and notes that, contrary to the claims of anti-immigration activists, the 300 cities that have these policies aren’t generally doing it to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. It’s more a question of resources: City governments want their police departments focused on fighting serious crime, not wasting time on policing people’s immigration status.

Such policies help the police do their actual job, Ocampo added. “People are afraid to talk to the police, afraid to report crimes, afraid of being witnesses to a crime” if they think police 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 noted, because it increases the likelihood of racial profiling. If police face possible financial penalties unless they start turning people over 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 memo in 1986 to fellow anti-immigration activists that read, “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 [sic] creating chaos and will continue to create chaos down the line.”

It’s tempting to put the blame solely on Donald Trump for the way such hardline nativist beliefs have crept ever closer to the political mainstream. But as Ocampo pointed out, the Republican Congress was enabling such views even before Trump barged onto scene the 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 linking undocumented immigrants to crime, inviting 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.

In April 2016, despite the fact that Trump’s xenophobic campaign was already escalating racial tensions and provoking violent incidents, House Republicans held their own version of the immigrants-are-the-source-of-crime hearing, using many of the same people that showed up at the Senate hearing.

After Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee, under the leadership of Reince Priebus, famously released an “autopsy” recommending that Republicans back away from anti-immigrant sentiment and broaden their 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 read.

Priebus will now be Trump’s White House chief of staff, and Trump is cozying up to the fringe nativist hysterics on 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.

Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She’s on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

Amanda Marcotte.

Source: Salon: in-depth news, politics, business, technology & culture > Politics

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