Champions of Anti-Immigrant Legislation Have Public Perception Problem

Imagine 2050 Staff • May 15, 2012

Last week, the nativist organization Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) wrapped up its annual Hold Their Feet to the Fire event in Washington DC. Every year, FAIR and its constituents descend on the capital for a two day carnival of anti-immigrant lobbying events and media appearances. At the center of this circus is the radio row, for which FAIR amasses dozens of nativist talk radio personalities in one room. FAIR understands the importance of its press, and cultivates it every day—for it is a sharp and perhaps the most powerful weapon in their fight to malign immigrants.

But this goes both ways. While Hold Their Feet to the Fire planted some good press for FAIR, the organization also used the event to address some of its resounding bad press as well. In his closing remarks, FAIR’s president, Dan Stein, reportedly took issue with the media’s attempt to wedge the anti-immigrant movement and presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Once unequivocal in his nativism, Romney is now entertaining the proposals of Republican upstart Marco Rubio (R-FL), who himself would like to pass legislation resembling the DREAM Act and, thus, challenge the Democratic monopoly in that constituency.

Romney’s apparent shift came amid news that he was quietly demoting his “immigration advisor,” Kris Kobach, first to the status of supporter, then “informal” advisor. Kobach writes anti-immigrant legislation—like SB 1070 and HB 56—for lawmakers through his employer, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI); IRLI is a subsidiary of FAIR used to produce and disseminate such nativist laws around the country. As Kobach is practically an employee of FAIR, the organization did not take this news well. Hence, Dan Stein’s address at Hold Their Feet to the Fire reflected this disappointment, hoping to deflect the public perception that Kobach is too extreme for the Republican Party.

In recent months, FAIR has dealt with such ambivalent press in a number of high-profile situations. In one such instance, another Hold Their Feet to the Fire attendee, Michael Hethmon was profiled by the Washington Post. Hethmon, the general counsel for IRLI, has settled for less notoriety than his colleague Kobach. Even still, when the US Supreme Court held hearings over Arizona’s SB 1070, an anti-immigrant law that IRLI produced, the media wanted to know the other member of the brain trust behind it. Though the Washington Post portrays Hethmon in a generally positive light, it does note the more sinister, racist aspect to the lawyer’s project, namely, his fear of demographic changes in the population of the US.

Moreover, this became the focal point of a debate at Cleveland State University, in which Hethmon defended his anti-immigrant stance. His opponents more clearly drilled the racist aspects of IRLI’s intent, and the press’s portrayal of Hethmon was, this time, far less glowing. Again facing the legitimate point that the project of Kobach, Hethmon, and IRLI is altogether exclusionary and extremist, FAIR and its cohorts were once again placed on the fringe.

FAIR drums up its media support with the claim that it represents the people. Indeed, in its advertisements for Hold Their Feet to the Fire, it cites “our duty as citizens” and that “in a democracy it is the responsibility of the people.” But FAIR merely demonstrates the true need for the people to be the masters and deciders, not the image and press of demagogues. While FAIR portrays this benevolent image through media allies, it becomes clear that it does not represent “the people,” but extremist ideologues.

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