December 14, 2010
by Terry Greene Sterling
On June 5, hundreds rallied at the Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza in Phoenix in support of Senate Bill 1070, the harshest state immigration law in the nation that had been signed into law six weeks earlier.
The crowd of mostly middle-aged, working-class white people waved handmade signs blaring such slogans as "14 Million Jobless Americans, 13 Million Illegals, DO THE MATH, MR. PRESIDENT."
And: "SB 1070 is not racist!"
It was a hot day. People were sunburned. Some wore American-flag shirts, American-flag baseball caps, or American-flag necklaces. Some carried American flags. They stood in the sun to hear a lineup of speakers delivering the same victory-themed message: Americans are under siege by hordes of illegal invaders who steal their jobs and suck up public benefits ... and, in this economy, how much more can Americans be expected to endure?
The call-to-arms message was that enough is enough. Rise up, get active, donate, vote, stop illegal immigration now — before it's too late.
The orators included black activist Ted Hayes ("Amnesty is racist. This country doesn't belong to anyone else but us"); Col. Al Rodriguez ("Mexicans, you don't speak for me"); Terry Anderson, the now-deceased California radio talk-show host ("Jackpot babies"); NumbersUSA lobbyist Rosemary Jenks ("Amnesty destroys America"); immigration hardliner and soon-to-lose Colorado gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo ("Barack Obama ... will open our borders"); and the self-professed author and sponsor of SB 1070, Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce.
Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and blue jeans, Pearce beamed as the crowd chanted gratitude for SB 1070. "Thank you, Russell. Thank you, Russell."
Pearce joked about how maybe Barack Obama himself didn't have papers. Then he justified SB 1070 by reciting the "hard costs of illegal immigration" to Arizona taxpayers — $2.7 billion in a time of "high unemployment and record foreclosures."
Like many successful illegal-immigration populists, Pearce gets those "hard costs" and his talking points from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based "public interest" nonprofit founded in 1979.
For years, FAIR has issued reports detailing how illegal immigrants damage the economy, steal American jobs, sponge public benefits and commit heinous crimes. The nonprofit allies itself with other groups and activists sharing its point of view. And although FAIR takes a back seat at anti-illegal-immigration rallies, its presence is pervasive. At the June 5 rally in Phoenix, almost every speaker had ties to FAIR.
Thanks to grassroots organizing, Washington politicking and faithful donors, FAIR has changed the immigration debate in the United States. It has successfully blocked progressive immigration reform, including what it calls "amnesty" — legalization of noncriminal illegal immigrants (including magna cum laude college graduates) who have lived in the United States for decades.
After SB 1070, FAIR turned its attention to its favorite cause: "birthright citizenship" legislation that would challenge the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment gives citizenship to children born in the United States. FAIR wants to change that so that babies born to undocumented-immigrant parents would be denied citizenship.
FAIR is allied with its sister nonprofits: NumbersUSA, which also lobbied successfully to squash immigration reform in 2007, and the Center for Immigration Studies, which refers to itself as a nonpartisan, pro-immigrant think tank. The three groups cite one another's reports and studies, and post one another's findings on their websites.
Reporters often quote experts from these three groups as credible mainstream voices of dissent to progressive immigration reform, even though several human-rights organizations have flagged FAIR, NumbersUSA and CIS as white-nationalist hate groups.
The groups maintain that the hate designations are arbitrary and untrue, but their vitriolic rhetoric scalds the ear.
"As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night?" retired ophthalmologist John Tanton, the founder of these oft-cited think tanks, once asked. "Or will there be an explosion?"
Arizona has long been an experimental legal laboratory for FAIR and a place to test increasingly harsh laws — 2004's Prop 200, the human-smuggling law, the employer-sanctions law, SB 1070, and the promised birthright-citizenship law.
The group's legal arm is the Immigration Reform Law Institute, whose "constitutional law expert" is Kris Kobach, the UMKC law professor and soon-to-be Kansas secretary of state. Kobach, a former Overland Park city councilman, was key in drafting SB 1070, and he has vowed to help Arizona fight so-called "anchor babies."
As each law hits the news, neutrally worded reports that portray the undocumented as social and economic burdens are issued by FAIR or its sister organizations. The studies point to the urgent need for passage of the immigration law in question.
In the wake of the passage of SB 1070, for instance, FAIR advanced a copy of its new report, on the alarming cost of illegal immigration in Arizona, to Fox News. And on May 17, Fox reported that "Arizona's illegal-immigrant population is costing the state's taxpayers even more than once thought — a whopping $2.7 billion, according to researchers at the public-interest group that helped write the state's new immigration law."
The FAIR report helped galvanize support for SB 1070 and for its boosters, including Kobach, Pearce and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. Brewer told the Arizona Republic that she signed SB 1070 in part because she was "cognizant of what the impact of illegal immigration was doing to the state of Arizona in relation to cost."
But the FAIR report that Brewer, Pearce and practically every other Arizona illegal-immigration politico relied on to get elected flies in the face of reality.
FAIR's estimate of the unauthorized population in Arizona is unusually robust. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 460,000 undocumented people live in Arizona. Recently, the Pew Hispanic Center lowered its estimate to about 375,000. But FAIR reports that 500,000 costly illegal aliens live in Arizona.
And FAIR has added a new demographic to the expense column: children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants.
Despite their constitutionally guaranteed citizenship, these children represent a major "cost of illegal immigration," according to FAIR.
Nearly half of FAIR's estimated cost of illegal immigration in Arizona involves expenses of U.S. children born to undocumented immigrants, without factoring in the obvious economic counterbalance — lifetimes of paying taxes, working and consuming. Adding these children to the expense column boosts Arizona's "cost of illegal immigration" to $2.7 billion, up from $1.3 billion in FAIR's 2004 report.
That's more than a 100 percent increase in supposed illegal-immigration costs in the face of a dramatic decline in the state's population of illegal immigrants.
Longtime FAIR staffer Jack Martin, who is not an economist but, rather, is "a retired U.S. diplomat with consular experience," put the Arizona report together.
In July, Martin said U.S. children born to undocumented immigrants were included in his report as a cost of illegal immigration, because they "wouldn't be here" if their parents hadn't been in the country illegally. And if Mom and Dad returned to Mexico, they'd take their American children with them, Martin declared.
Asked why these same American kids mysteriously disappear from his report once they become adults and offset the cost of their educations by paying taxes, consuming and working, Martin offered no rational answer.
In July, as politicians eyeballed SB 1070's popularity and drafted similar election-year legislation in their states, FAIR issued yet another report: "The Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration on United States Taxpayers."
This detailed report says illegal aliens cost American taxpayers $113 billion annually, a figure that Kobach quoted in his quasi campaign to become secretary of state. It says each American household pays $1,117 yearly for illegal immigration, and that most illegal aliens don't pay taxes.
Such numbers understandably outrage millions of Americans already anxious about uncertain economic times. But, once again, the numbers defy logic, because the misleading techniques in the Arizona report were duplicated in the national report.
Start with the population estimate.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 10.8 million illegal immigrants lived in the United States in 2009, but the FAIR report estimates a much larger population: 13 million.
And, as in the Arizona report, the largest single "fiscal burden" of illegal immigration is tied to American children. FAIR says it costs taxpayers $52 billion to educate the children of illegal immigrants, including more than 3 million American citizens born to one or more undocumented parents. The positive economic counterbalance to education costs (the adult lifetime of productivity, consumption and taxpaying) is excluded from FAIR's calculations.
In fact, the consensus among many economists is that the U.S. government actually nets a profit from educating its children, because educated adults pay more taxes and contribute to the nation's productivity.
"Many government expenses related to immigrants are associated with their children," Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney write in "Ten Economic Facts About Immigration," recently published on behalf of the Brookings Institution. "Both the immigrant children and children of U.S.-born citizens are expensive when they are young because of the costs of investing in children's education and health. Those expenses, however, are paid back through taxes received over a lifetime of work."
Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California–Davis and an expert on the contributions of immigrants to economies, adds: "Education spending is always considered an investment, not a cost, because it adds to the productivity of the country."
Daniel Griswold, of the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote in a 2007 report, "The Fiscal Impact of Immigration Reform: The Real Story," that it would be misleading to "count the costs of educating the children of an immigrant without considering the future taxes paid by the educated children once they have grown and entered the workforce."
Educated voices of reason are drowned out by FAIR's populist appeal. If you want to measure the nonprofit's effectiveness at convincing Americans that illegal immigrants are an undue burden on taxpayers, consider this: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a staunch supporter a few months ago of legalizing the undocumented already in the United States, now seeks hearings on whether their kids should be citizens.
"People come here to have babies," he told Fox News in July. "They come here to drop a child."
His assertion that parents illegally enter the United States to give birth to "anchor babies" and obtain parental green cards makes no sense. Under current immigration law, undocumented parents must wait for their "anchor babies" to reach adulthood before they can legally apply for parental green cards.
And if the parents live illegally in the United States, immigration authorities generally require that they return to Mexico and stay there for 10 years before the U.S. government will consider giving them green cards.
But this doesn't stop Graham's bluster. He has even hinted that he might introduce legislation to change the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which grants citizenship to children born on American soil regardless of whether their parents have papers. Graham was probably grandstanding; such an amendment requires a two-thirds majority in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate and would have to be ratified by 75 percent of the states.
The more practical path would be for Arizona to pass a birthright-citizenship law and then test it all the way to the Supreme Court at taxpayer expense — just like all the other Arizona immigration laws that FAIR has heartily supported. And, sure enough, fresh off his SB 1070 victory, Russell Pearce vowed that he'd ramp up his efforts to get a birthright-citizenship law passed in Arizona. Later, Kobach told reporters that Pearce had enlisted him to help.
Pearce, who didn't respond to calls and an e-mail seeking comment, is now the president of the Arizona Senate. He has publicly stated that he will back off sponsoring the birthright-citizenship law himself and will turn over the issue to Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh. It's unknown whether Kavanagh will introduce another of Pearce's favorite measures: a law that would require parents with no papers to pay tuition for their kids to attend public school.
Such a law would work in tandem with a birthright-citizenship measure. First, Arizona would deny birth certificates to kids born to undocumented parents. Second, the state would charge tuition because the children have no birth certificates.
If a birthright-citizenship law was passed, it would create a burgeoning, illegal, illiterate, expensive underclass. And if children of the undocumented were deprived of schooling, government revenues would plummet.
That's because cost benefits of a public high school education are significant. A 2007 Columbia University study found that even kids who needed expensive interventions (such as English classes) in order to get their high school diplomas netted the public purse an average of $127,000 per student over a lifetime.
On the other hand, the same study reports, high school dropouts tend to commit more crimes, be less healthy, rely more on public benefits, and pay fewer taxes.
The Center for Immigration Studies has long pointed to an almost 40 percent dropout rate among Latino immigrants. The implication is that Mexicans drain the economy with social costs — and that if they don't leave, it will only get worse.
Scaremongering about Latino dropout rates is based on National Center for Education Statistics data on the "16- to 24-year-old status dropout rate." Richard Fry, of the Pew Hispanic Center, determined that 38 percent of Hispanic immigrants ages 16 to 24 were high school dropouts.
But here's the catch, according to Fry: The 38 percent dropout rate includes thousands of young immigrant laborers with minimal educations who never attended American schools. They're counted by the National Center for Education Statistics as high school dropouts because they haven't finished 12 years of school.
U.S.-born Hispanics actually do have a relatively high dropout rate — 11 percent. That's not a good statistic, and it does have social costs. But it's impossible to tie this dropout rate to illegal immigration, and Fry says there's no way to determine how many of these U.S.-born dropouts are children of the undocumented.
Seeing their peers waste educational opportunities frustrates many of about 825,000 undocumented immigrant children known as DREAMers.
Brought to the United States as children by undocumented relatives, about 65,000 of these kids graduate from American high schools every year. Many have made it through college, on private scholarships, with honors.
But they can't legally work in the United States, even though they self-identify as Americans.
That could soon change. A piece of feel-good federal legislation called the DREAM Act would grant temporary legal residency to undocumented high school grads with no criminal records and allow them to attend college or trade school or join the military. They'd get green cards only if they lived up to their end of the bargain. Then, eventually, they'd qualify for citizenship — and, according to them and their advocates, work, pay taxes, shore up the middle class and help strengthen the military.
The law has been introduced every year since 2001, and it's getting a last-chance airing as 2010 draws to a close.
But FAIR has successfully blocked DREAM Act legislation, decrying it as closeted amnesty for illegal aliens and condemning it as an incentive for further illegal immigration into the United States. And when young Kansas City immigrants rallied in support of the legislation late last month, Kobach made himself available to local TV crews to offer his, and FAIR's, point of view.
"Get in line," he said, "with the millions of people around this globe who are trying to enter the United States legally, and doing it the right way."
Back in July, as Kobach's campaign for state office was just heating up, he invited Phoenix lawman Joe Arpaio to a conference center in Overland Park. As 1,300 people whooped in appreciation of the two men, Kobach trotted out many of FAIR's bogus claims, including the number of illegal immigrants in the country and their cost to taxpayers.
Among the suspect statistics was his claim that Phoenix had the world's second-highest kidnapping rate, with more than 200 every year — a figure he blamed on the state's place at the center of the human- and drug-trafficking trades. The Phoenix-as-Mogadishu tale had been debunked by the Phoenix police department, but that didn't stop Kobach from using it. Then, to make sure the issue hit home, he estimated that Phoenix's metro area is about twice the size of Kansas City's, and he fantasized about a Kansas City with 100-plus kidnappings a year.
"People wouldn't just be conceal-carrying, they'd be open-carrying," he said.
It's a common scare tactic used by the friends of FAIR. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has spoken of drug-related beheadings in the desert, and she famously announced that most Mexican immigrants were drug mules.
Those stories are patently false. Contrary to Brewer's assertions, border counties and cities have experienced declining crime rates, and border cities are among the safest in the nation, according to the FBI. And crime studies show again and again that immigrants do not commit as many violent crimes as their native-born counterparts.
Despite all this, when Arizonans were polled after the passage of SB 1070, they voiced mounting fear over crimes committed by Mexicans against Americans.
The fear is fueled on FAIR's website, which posts articles detailing horrendous crimes committed in the United States by "illegal-alien criminals." And the same fear is fanned in FAIR's alarmist "report" on the fiscal burden of illegal immigration on taxpayers.
The think tank claims that American taxpayers pay about $7.83 billion for "law enforcement costs of illegal immigration." About half is tied to federal detention, removal and prosecution of illegal immigrants, all of which FAIR has long advocated. Another $1.4 billion is tied to National Guard and Coast Guard costs.
The numbers are ambiguous at best. The feds who warehouse criminal aliens don't tally who is legal (green card, visa) and who isn't, so it's not possible to get true "law enforcement costs of illegal immigration."
In April, Kavanagh declared that in Arizona, "illegals make up 15 percent of our prison population ... . It is a fact."
But it's not a fact.
The Arizona Department of Corrections, like the federal Bureau of Prisons, doesn't break down which inmates are in the country legally and which aren't. It does tally "foreign national" inmates, but that category includes legal and illegal immigrants.
Two Arizona officials actually did distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants: Kobach campaigner Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, and former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who long pointed to a disproportionate number of illegal-alien felons incarcerated in Arizona. But a lot of the felons clogging up the jails were there only because they were immigrants — Mexicans who'd been nabbed for washing cars with fake IDs or paying a smuggler to guide them through the desert.
Tanton, the founder of FAIR, is articulate and friendly. At 76 years old, he paints a picture of himself living a seemingly idyllic life of retirement on the shores of Lake Michigan. He's happily married to a smart woman, Mary Lou, and the two are active in their community, their Methodist church, the environment.
Tanton likes to hike, despite early stage Parkinson's disease. On a recent morning, he and Mary Lou walked for four miles through a vast nature preserve that they'd helped create near their beloved home of Petoskey, Michigan.
After a post-hike lunch of meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy, he returned to his office and his life's work: restricting immigration into the United States in any way possible.
Tanton dismisses a growing number of critics, who tag him as a closeted white nationalist and who charge that his web of nonprofits has one secret, chilling goal: restricting immigration to preserve the nation for a white, European majority.
In the 1970s, Tanton was a leader of the group Zero Population Growth, which promoted two-children families as a way to stabilize the nation's population. He has long worried, he says, that the U.S. population will overrun natural resources and destroy the country.
The U.S. population has soared, from about 225 million in 1982 to more than 307 million in 2009, in part because immigrant babies have bolstered the birthrate that Tanton has labored so long to reduce. Many population experts argue that those immigrant babies will become the workers who pay taxes to provide social services for the aging American population. But Tanton has a "fundamental disagreement" with that theory.
His self-described population concerns caused him to start the Social Contract Press (a publishing house), NumbersUSA, CIS and U.S. Inc., which funnels money to the other organizations. Taken together, these nonprofits make up the so-called Tanton Network, a group that enjoys a solid, loyal list of donors.
But in 2007, the individual nonprofits in the Tanton Network were labeled hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. An Alabama-based civil rights organization, the SPLC subsequently dispatched Heidi Beirich, its director of research, to comb through Tanton's papers at the University of Michigan.
Beirich says she was stunned by what she found in the boxes: reams of letters from Tanton to leading white nationalists and "race scientists."
"Do we leave it to individuals to decide that they are the intelligent ones who should have more kids?" Tanton wrote to Robert Graham, who had started a sperm bank with the semen of Nobel Prize winners. "And more troublesome, what about the less intelligent, who logically should have less?"
Beirich's published reports on Tanton's white-supremacist associations outraged FAIR, CIS and NumbersUSA. Jerry Kammer, a former reporter who helped bring a Pulitzer Prize to a San Diego newspaper, is now a "senior research fellow" for CIS. At a panel convened this fall to discredit the SPLC, Kammer bashed the organization.
But Kammer also sought to distance himself from Tanton, who, he says, "has a tin ear for the sensitivities of immigration." Tanton is a "distraction" in the immigration movement, Kammer says, because he "sometimes speaks with a freewheeling bluntness that even those who admire him find upsetting."
But the SPLC isn't the first organization to call the motives of FAIR's founder into question. In the 1990s, several magazines and newspapers profiled Tanton and pointed out his controversial views. And in 2000, the Anti-Defamation League took on FAIR. "Unfortunately, FAIR and other anti-immigrant groups have used reckless, distorted language and tactics that cloud and inhibit responsible debate," the ADL concluded in a report.
Tanton sees nothing wrong with associating with white nationalists. He doesn't necessarily agree with them, he says, but reaching out to them is part of his "coalition building."
And he's not ashamed of soliciting $1.5 million in unrestricted donations during FAIR's early days from the Pioneer Fund, an American foundation that has long financed research in "race science."
Instead, when Tanton looks at how FAIR, NumbersUSA, CIS and his other groups have succeeded in turning the immigration debate his way, the old man feels an obvious satisfaction about his life's work.
"It is amazing," he says, "how well we've done."
Terry Greene Sterling is the author of the new book Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone and is writer-in-residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. Jennifer Gaie Hellum assisted with research on white-nationalist groups.