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Know Your Sources: The Mainstream Press Keeps Finding Wacky Immigration “Experts”

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Amid the most recent immigration debate on Capitol Hill, many of us for the first time met a whole new group of spokespeople arrayed against immigration. But did we really meet them—or just the face they would like the mainstream press to see?

It turns out that many anti-immigrant leaders have backgrounds that should disqualify them from even participating in mainstream debate. What is sad is they manage to get the American press to quote them without ever noting their bizarre and often racist beliefs.

A strong assertion? Hardly.

Let’s start with the first of numerous examples: John Vinson. Vinson heads the American Immigration Control Foundation and is a leading anti-immigrant voice in the mainstream press. He is also a co-author of The Greybook: Blueprint for Southern Independence, published in 2004 by the racist League of the South. As the name implies, the authors call for the secession of the former Confederate states in order to protect the racial purity and economic viability of the white middle class. And they do so, they say on page 26 of the neo-Confederate tract, “Standing in the same place where our President Jefferson Davis stood in 1861.”

Yet in April of this year, the South Bend Tribune of South Bend, Indiana had no problem quoting Vinson as an authority on immigration matters. Vinson, described in the April 15 article as “editor of Americans for Immigration Control,” was asked about the then-pending Senate immigration reform bill:

Vinson said he opposes any proposal that grants citizenship to undocumented immigrants. "I can’t understand the rationale of giving citizenship to people who have broken the law," he said.

Nowhere in the article is there any mention that Vinson is a devout white-supremacist. Nor was there any such notation a year earlier in a straight news article in the Arizona Daily Star, where he gives his evaluation that the 1986 federal immigration law was a failure. Indeed, a survey of mainstream media articles conducted by the Center for American Progress using Lexis-Nexis over a period of one year found numerous quotes from Vinson, AICF, or representatives of the affiliated Americans for Immigration Control in the mainstream press—none of which mention any connection to white supremacy when quoting Vinson, AICF, or AIC.

Seems like it would matter to readers to know a basic fact such as that the guy whose “expertise” is being printed in the newspaper actually hates people of color. Knowing this bias would likely shape readers’ interpretation of the article. Instead, readers are given Vinson’s views as if these are coming from a reasonable, rational commentator, not one who believes the South should secede from the United States to protect white people.

Vinson’s wacky goal of creating a new Confederacy might be thwarted if federal law developed a path to citizenship for immigrants from Mexico and Central America. To be honestly informed, readers should at least be given information about his secessionist ambitions when he’s quoted to support opposition to comprehensive immigration reform.

Vinson and his organizations are but one example of the press not telling viewers and readers about the backgrounds of anti-immigrant experts they bring on television news or quote in this country’s newspapers. Want another example? How about John Tanton.

Most Americans have never heard of John Tanton because he operates behind the scenes, but he is the founder and/or early funder of almost every national anti-immigrant organization in the country, including at least a dozen groups. By his own admission, Tanton’s creations include the largest and best known of the national anti-immigrant organizations: NumbersUSA and FAIR, which stands for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The Tanton-owned Social Contract Press publishes the views of white nationalists such as John Vinson, including a gem about how God prefers racial separation. Tanton also publishes Camp of the Saints, a racist screed that uses fiction to warn white Europeans about an impending invasion of immigrants from India who will overrun the government, kidnap white women and make them into prostitutes.

If members of the mainstream press did their homework, they’d discover that it is pretty easy to get to the bottom of Tanton’s network. Dig just a little deeper and they would find what the Southern Poverty Law Center reports—that Tanton received large sums of early money for FAIR from the Pioneer Fund, possibly the last remaining funder of eugenics in the country.

You remember eugenics; it’s best-known proponents were the Nazis who tried to demonstrate the power of this pseudo-science by executing millions of Jews, disabled people, and others who did not meet their views of racial purity. A visit to the Pioneer Fund’s website is a walk back in time, and not a pleasant one. It contains biographies of board members and grant recipient scholars who support such ideas as black people having smaller brains than people of European or Asian descent, and women being genetically predisposed to have lower IQs than men.

At least through 2002, Tanton’s organizations continued to receive support from the Pioneer Fund. According to documents that nonprofit organizations must file with the federal government (known as 990s), the heavily Tanton-funded Project USA received a general operating support grant in that year, and the prior one, from the Pioneer Fund. Project USA’s 990 for 2002, lists its address as the same as NumbersUSA’s DC office. This information never came up on CNN on June 25, 2007, when Wolf Blitzer’s “The Situation Room” ran a nearly congratulatory piece about NumberUSA’s efforts to defeat the immigration reform bill.

Possibly because of some of these connections, FAIR and NumbersUSA have themselves gone to great lengths to declare that they are not racist. Yet with a modest amount of research, it is easy to find that FAIR CEO Dan Stein appears to have great tolerance for white supremacists, at least among his paid staff. Former FAIR Western Regional Director Rick Oltman regularly represented FAIR at Council of Conservative Citizens meetings (see pictures here and here). The Council of Conservative Citizens, which “oppose[s] all efforts to mix the races of mankind,” is the successor organization to the White Citizens Council, whose membership terrorized African Americans attempting to register to vote or enroll in public schools following Brown vs. Board of Education.

Not to be outdone, Joe Turner, who was recently hired by FAIR as the successor to Oltman, had racist skinheads and neo-Nazis join his protests when he was head of the anti-immigrant Save Our State in California. Turner toes the company line at FAIR, claiming that he is not racist, but one needs to understand this in the context of his unique perspective on what it is to be a racist. Here is a remark attributed to Turner by the Southern Poverty Law Center:

I can make the argument that just because one believes in white separatism that that does not make them a racist. I can make the argument that someone who proclaims to be a white nationalist isnt necessarily a white supremacist. I dont think that standing up for your "kind" or "your race" makes you a bad person. [Lack of punctuation appears in the original.]

Similarly, NumbersUSA and FAIR do not distance themselves from the racist leadership of the AICF family of organizations. Notwithstanding Vinson’s view that the South should secede to protect white people, he is welcomed as a speaker at rallies co-organized by FAIR. And despite AICF’s racism, you will have no problem purchasing NumbersUSA head Roy Beck’s Immigration by the Numbers video from AICF’s website. This video is published by Tanton’s Social Contract Press.

Beyond sharing the podium and selling each others’ products, Americans for Immigration Control, NumbersUSA, and FAIR work together regularly to fund and move the anti-immigrant agenda. An example of this is the Coalition for the Future American Worker, in which these three relatively large organizations joined together with mostly small shell or wholly owned subsidiary organizations to fund radio, print, and television ads opposing the immigration bill.

Despite these connections to white supremacy, bizarre theories of racial superiority, and truly scary funders, the mainstream press has given these organizations a relatively free ride. CAP conducted another Lexis-Nexis review of 42 news articles in the two months from May 7 to July 6 of 2007 featuring NumbersUSA and FAIR as experts. Only two made any mention of these organizations’ problematic backgrounds. In both cases this was an acknowledgement of FAIR’s connections to either Tanton or the Pioneer Fund.

Among those mainstream media outlets that failed to spot the obvious: CNN, National Public Radio, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Denver Post, El Paso Times, The Times-Picayune (New Orleans), San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The St. Petersburg Times, and The Orlando Sentinel.

As long as leading mainstream media sources give voice to these organizations without explaining who they really are, the American public will not be fully informed. Motives of those presenting ideas matter for all of us as we think through issues. The mainstream press has failed to set the context and is thus misshaping the immigration debate. And, the mainstream national press often influences with its coverage the kind of reporting given to a topic by local newspapers in communities across the country.

Because of the failure by Congress to pass comprehensive national immigration reform, increasingly towns, cities, and states are becoming hosts to the immigration debate. Through its legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, FAIR is already promulgating anti-immigrant local ordinances, such as one in Prince William County, Virginia. At the same time, locally based pro-immigration organizations are reaching out to support integrating immigrants, with efforts including English language instruction and building bridges between immigrants and local police departments.

As these issues are debated in city councils, state houses, and across dining room tables, we need to ensure that Americans are getting honest facts from reputable organizations. This includes requiring the press to open the closet and look at some of the filth inside. It’s really not that hard to do.

Henry Fernandez is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on state and municipal policy. He suggests the following sources to learn more about anti-immigrant groups and their myriad connections: the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Building Democracy Initiative of the Center for New Community, the Anti-Defamation League, and the International Relations Center.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund, women's issues)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention, the National Security Agency)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (energy and environment, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org