Nativists Get a Tea-Party Makeover | The Nation


Nativists Get a Tea-Party Makeover

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The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute provided support for this article.
In August of 2009, Al Garza, a leader in the anti-immigrant movement, left his post as vice president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC), once the largest, richest and most politically connected border vigilante group in the country. In an e-mail to supporters, Garza explained: I do not see an end in sight for the problems plaguing what was once the greatest citizen movement in America."

About the Author

Gaiutra Bahadur
Gaiutra Bahadur is the author of Coolie Woman, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Orwell Prize.

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It had been an embarrassing summer for the group. A former member, Shawna Forde, was arrested and charged with murdering a Latino man and his 10-year-old daughter in Arizona. Forde allegedly believed that she would find drugs and cash in the victim's home, on a dirt road only a few miles from the US–Mexico border. Prosecutors contend that Forde was enacting a delusional plan to fund her breakaway faction—the Washington State–based Minutemen American Defense—by robbing Latin American drug cartels that she imagined were out to get her. The details about her fringe character that later emerged—her interest in starting an underground militia, her string of arrests for prostitution and petty theft, information from a co-defendant that her nickname was "White," because "she hates all ethnicity with the exception of Caucasians"—further wrecked whatever credibility the Minutemen had.

The publicity surrounding the case enabled Garza to recruit hundreds, including former Minutemen, to an alternative group he soon created, The Patriot's Coalition. "A lot of people felt, well, you're a Minuteman, you're a killer," Garza told me, at a truck stop near his home in Cochise County, Arizona. "The name Minuteman has been tainted by organizations that didn't want us at the border, that say we're killers, that we've done harm." Fortunately for Garza and others, their desire to reinvent coincided with a unique opportunity to do so—the emergence of the Tea Party movement on the national political horizon.

A few months before he broke with the Minutemen, Garza met Joanne Daley, his local Tea Party coordinator, at a tax day protest she had organized. Daley was a nexus of conservatism in Cochise County, spearheading health care reform town halls and a chapter of Glenn Beck's 9/12 Project. When Daley met Garza, she said, "we…found out we had a lot in common, mostly outrage." And when the time came for Garza to rebrand himself and his cause, he turned to Daley. She had expertise seeding nonprofits, developed through an old job with the state of Arizona. She registered Garza's new group with the Arizona Corporation Commission, listing him as president and herself as a member of the board of directors.

* * *

The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps dissolved this past spring, after years of infighting and accusations of financial mismanagement. But the demise of the group, once so mediagenic that it spawned many imitators, does not signal the death of organized nativism in the United States. On the contrary, the anti-immigrant movement is stronger than ever. And it is gaining political muscle through its growing ties to other ultraconservative groups. Like Garza, many nativists are morphing into Tea Party irregulars. They are also redefining themselves more broadly as patriots, embracing a resurgent states rights movement to challenge the federal government's authority.

Consider, for example, the FIRE Coalition, an obscure organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center says accounted for almost all of the significant growth in 2009 in the number of grassroots outfits that harass immigrants. The FIRE Coalition has vilified undocumented immigrants as violent criminals and created a website that allows anyone to inform on them and their employers. But the group went well beyond its original mission in August, when it co-sponsored a national conference in Pennsylvania that brought together gun rights advocates, "Obamacare" opponents and John Birch Society members under the banner of states "demand[ing] their sovereignty from the tyranny of the Federal government." The speakers included Richard Mack, the author of The County Sheriff: America's Last Hope and a former Arizona sheriff who is—as conference promoters put it—"teaching local sheriffs that they have the power to say no to federal agents."

It's no accident that the group held its conference at Valley Forge, scene of George Washington's winter redoubt in 1777. The patriot movement often invokes Revolutionary War imagery to cast itself as a ragtag bunch of ordinary citizens rebelling against a repressive government. The anti-immigrant movement embraces the same rhetoric. FIRE national director Jeff Lewis boasts that as delegate to a "3rd Continental Congress," he drafted "instructions to federal and state governments regarding their numerous usurpations and violations of the US Constitution." Nativists, like Tea Partyers, fly flags bearing the Revolutionary War motto "Don't Tread on Me" at rallies. And of course, the Minutemen sought to exploit the brand of the American Revolution with a knockoff name years before the Tea Party did.

Despite this shared packaging, the Tea Party's position on immigration isn't as clearly defined as on the deficit or healthcare. One of the movement's few recognizable leaders—former House majority leader Dick Armey, a major Tea Party organizer as chair of the small-government nonprofit FreedomWorks—received a C-minus for his Congressional record from NumbersUSA. He even lamented on national television the presence of infamous immigrant-baiter Tom Tancredo in the Tea Party. A Gallup poll earlier this year indicated that significantly more Tea Party backers feel seriously threatened by terrorism and the size of the federal government than by illegal immigration.

Nonetheless, the flirtation between nativists and Tea Partyers that began during the healthcare debate last summer, as coverage for illegal immigrants became a flashpoint, has intensified. The lines between the movements are blurring, as members overlap at the grassroots and leaders make official appearances at each other's events. Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, spoke at the Tea Party's first convention in February. "There's a whole lot of cross-pollination between the Tea Party movement and the anti-immigrant movement," says Marilyn Mayo, co-director of right-wing research for The Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors nativist groups. "We're starting to see a lot of focus on immigration in the Tea Party. It's the next step for them after healthcare."

SB-1070, the Arizona law that requires police to ask for proof of legal residency from people they believe could be undocumented immigrants, has been a catalyst. Activism around the law this summer showcased the chemistry between nativists and various Tea Party groups. The Tea Party Patriots gathered thousands of signatures in favor of the law. The Tea Party Nation co-sponsored a rally in Phoenix on June 5, which proclaimed the backing of the broader patriot movement. The slogans on the T-shirts and buttons for sale there broadcast a wide array of messages and causes not related to immigration, including: "Dictators Prefer Armed Citizens" and "Karl Marx Was Not A Founding Father." An overwhelming 88 percent of Tea Party "true believers" in Washington also back the law, according to a University of Washington poll.

Many nativists argue that the Tea Party's emphasis on fiscal conservatism suits their own argument that immigrants here illegally drain the public's pocketbook. But why would anti-immigrant activists want to merge with a movement with a stance on immigration that is still up for debate? And more fundamentally, why would a movement that constantly howls that the federal government isn't doing enough (to enforce the country's borders) court a movement dedicated to limiting the role of the federal government?

To understand what they see in each other, consider the common ground between Daley and Garza. They both contend that President Obama has not yet proved that he is a US citizen. Both are open to conspiracy theories. In addition to being a birther, Garza believes Mexico is using its migrants as part of a Reconquista plot, abetted by some Latino members of Congress, to take back the southwestern United States. "Illegal aliens," he said, "are considered to be their silver bullet or choice of weapon, if you will, to make change in the United States." And Garza and Daley both embrace a resurgent states rights movement. It is the terrain on which those who think the federal government is too active and those who think it isn't active enough meet, despite the apparent ideological contradiction.

* * *

That terrain also overlaps neatly with the mesquite borderlands of Arizona, which is—in the words of a now-iconic bumper sticker depicting Gov. Jan Brewer flexing her muscles, as Rosie the Riveter—"Doing the Job the Feds Won't Do." The state is fighting the feds in court, as it contests a lawsuit accusing it of violating the US Constitution by attempting to do what only the federal government can do: regulate the country's borders and, thus, make immigration law. It's no surprise that inhabitants of Nobama-Land, including Tea Party and patriot groups, would find common cause with this brandishing of states rights. Opposition to the federal healthcare law, especially the mandate that every individual get insurance, has been framed as an issue of state sovereignty by those groups. Arizona led the backlash there too, as the first state to call for a ballot initiative to outlaw compelling health coverage. (Voters will consider the initiative in November.)

States rights are being invoked now to a degree that they haven't been since desegregation. At least 11 other states are considering versions of Arizona's immigration law, and thirty-eight other states are considering measures to opt out of aspects of the healthcare law. The Tenth Amendment Movement, which pushes state sovereignty on a whole host of divisive issues, is winning adherents in both Tea Party and nativist circles. It appeals both to those who argue the federal government refuses to do what it should and those who argue it shouldn't do what it is.

This affinity with the Tea Party, to the extent that it also leads to backing from a movement with growing political momentum and grassroots energy, promises to lend more clout to anti-immigrant leaders. Take the victory of a dark horse candidate for state assembly in California. The odds were so long for Tim Donnelly—a former Minuteman leader who runs his family's plastics supply business in Twin Peaks—that he couldn't even hire a campaign consultant. But various Tea Party groups went to work for him, and in July he managed to win the Republican primary in a district that votes Republican. He said he couldn't have won without Tea Party volunteers walking precincts and knocking on doors. "It was the way we reached people," he said. "We didn't have the money to reach people in the conventional way." Donnelly said he realized, in the crush of a crowd of thousands at a tax protest in 2009, that the Tea Party movement would far outstrip the Minutemen in reach. It has allowed him to situate anxiety about undocumented workers in the context of a broader anger against a federal government he compared to "King George who kept taxing us, taxing us, taxing us, but never wanted to hear from us." Donnelly campaigned on reproducing Arizona's immigration law in California. It is first on his agenda if elected.

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