Representative Michele Bachmann at a rally outside the US Capitol on June 19, 2013. Photo by George Zornick.
Halfway through a passionate speech Wednesday that railed against comprehensive immigration reform, Representative Michele Bachmann asked if every person under the age of 18, amidst the crowd of hundreds, could join her on the small stage outside the US Capitol.
A surprising number of kids rushed up to the makeshift platform, filling it to a somewhat alarming capacity. Bachmann had to ask some to stand on the grass nearby instead. “We don’t want to collapse. Like our economy,” she cracked.
Then Bachmann hoisted up a lily-white infant. “Say hello to Terra. And say hello to America’s future,” she shouted, as the crowd went nuts. But, Bachmann quickly intoned, “little baby Terra is looking at a very different future.”
This rally, organized by Tea Party groups across the country and promoted by Glenn Beck on his Internet television empire for much of the past week, is basically the GOP’s worst nightmare. As party leaders and the consultant class try to convince the Republican base, 60 percent of which opposes a pathway to citizenship, to support an immigration bill, and as people like Senator John Cornyn frame their opposition as pro-reform but concerned about border security—well, you don’t want Michele Bachmann on the Capitol lawn, holding up white babies and talking about America’s future.
Representatives Bachmann, Steve King and Louie Gohmert organized the rally as a “Lincoln-Douglas” style debate to show Congress—and specifically House Speaker John Boehner—that significant opposition to the idea of immigration reform exists inside and outside Congress.
Such voices have been largely marginalized in the reform debate so far, but the conservative base in the House, as we noted last week, is launching a push to force Boehner only to introduce bills that can pass with a majority of the Republican caucus. That is: only to introduce bills that do not offer a clear pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
There was, to be sure, a strong nativist tone to the rally. American and Gadsden flags abounded, as did the ever-present activists dressed up as Revolutionary War–era patriots. There were also signs: “Immigration Reform = Legalized Invasion.” Another large flag had a Jesus fish stylized with the stars and stripes; “Proud American Christian,” it read. “Shut the door,” read another. “No Amnesty for Illegals,” read several.
Bachmann and the other speakers knew their audience. “It looks like a beautiful family reunion to me. It looks like the American family is here, at your house,” Bachmann began her speech. “Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t real people that the politicians fear more than anything else. We’re seeing a lot of real people here today, and I’m so extremely grateful that you’re here.”
“Very quickly we are observing a nation that we no longer recognize,” Bachmann said. But she also apparently understood that her wider audience wasn’t limited to the people in attendance—and realized how this all might look. “And by that I mean, it has nothing to do with the color of anyone’s skin,” she continued. “It has nothing to do with anyone’s ethnicity. It has to do with our American creed: because bottom line, we are believers, and proud believers, in the Declaration of Independence.”
The heart of Bachmann’s speech, and many of the speeches Wednesday morning, was that a new wave of immigrants would further bankrupt an already broken state. “If you walk into that building, the United States Treasury, and you can get past the guards that are there, and you get over to the vault, and you say, by some miracle, ‘Would you open that vault?’—I’m just here to say, if they opened it, it would be moths and feathers that would fly out.” Her explanation of why baby Terra won’t have a future is that she would have to pay “up to 75 percent of her future income” to support an expanding welfare state.
Well, what about the CBO report, released yesterday, that said immigration reform will reduce deficits? The rally had an answer in the form of Robert Rector, a Heritage Foundation expert, who assured the crowd with plenty of facts and figures that the CBO had it all wrong. In short: “The CBO is bullshit!” as one man shouted out during the lecture.
This is where, perhaps, the real danger to immigration reform lies, as members of Congress who are undecided contemplate their votes: the economic insecurity and distrust of government that have undergirded not only the Tea Party, but are also shared by plenty of other Americans these days.
That view was best expressed by a member of the Pittsburgh Tea Party who took the microphone at one point, as organizers encouraged attendees to do. “Why is it that instead of having NSA tap the phones of the American citizenry, they don’t go find out who these illegals are and who they’re calling back in their home countries, and to whom they are sending money—American money—back to their banks?” the man said. “These are the things that we want to know.”
Plenty of other signs spoke to this concern. “Exporting Illegals—Importing Jobs for Americans!” said one; “Amnesty = Cheap Votes + Cheap Labor.”
These folks share a common concern with senators like Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an avowed liberal who spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday about the dangers of importing low-wage labor from Mexico when many Americans are out of work.
For many people who attended the rally, these economic concerns were wedded with concerns for an explicitly white, Christian country—and combined with the fear of losing majority and political power.
“It will cause capitalism to crash,” one retired teacher from Moore County, North Carolina told me matter-of-factly about immigration reform. “Capitalism crashes, we’re into socialism.”
“These people [immigrants] don’t realize they’re being given all this stuff just to collect their votes so that people in power can gain more power—and they’re so ignorant,” she continued. “You know they spoke of their educational level, it averages the highest is about tenth grade. They’re being used as pawns. The people that are here are educated, they know what’s going on, they are aware. They also, most of them are Christian, okay, they have conscience. They know right from wrong—and it’s against their conscience just to see these people used as pawns,” she said as she sliced an apple in her folding chair. “They’re going to end up losing their freedoms. They’re just being led like sheep to the slaughter.”
Why do Aiyana Jones and Trayvon Martin matter? Read Mychal Denzel Smith’s argument here.