WASHINGTON, D.C.—As a candidate in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama promised to have in his first year in office “an immigration bill that I strongly support.” Almost five years later, absent White House action to date, Obama used his Feb. 12 State of the Union address to speak again on immigration reform: “Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants.”
Obama’s inaction on immigration has been viewed with suspicion: Perhaps he prefers to continue using the issue as a political tool rather than push for a solution to a broken system. But Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the son of Cuban immigrants, are ready to put the president’s sentiments on immigration to the test by pushing for reform—even though Democrats soundly beat Republicans at the polls among Latino voters in last year’s presidential election.
Standing against comprehensive reform is Washington’s influential anti-immigration lobby, already credited with successfully taking down immigration reform efforts in 2007. Groups working to reduce immigration are led by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), NumbersUSA, and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). While these groups draw ample support from otherwise pro-life Republicans, they are driven by extreme environmentalist views and focus heavily on radical population control.
One of the strongest voices for population control via limits to immigration is John Tanton. In 2011 The New York Times called him “the most influential unknown man in America.” A Michigan doctor, Tanton spent the early part of his career starting local Planned Parenthood and Sierra Club chapters in the 1960s and ’70s. For two years he served as national president of Zero Population Growth. He then turned his attention to immigration, directly or indirectly helping found FAIR (1979), CIS (1985), and NumbersUSA (1997), groups that separately engage the public, produce research, and lobby Congress for the same thing: lower immigration.
Today these groups say they have the ear of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, while it’s mostly Republicans who place a high priority on securing the borders before creating new pathways to legal immigration. The groups played key roles in defeating changes to federal immigration law in 2002 and 2007, and have worked with statehouse Republicans to enact laws restricting immigration in Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama.
On Capitol Hill and in state capitals, Republicans push hardest for tougher laws, but many board members and financial backers of FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA are anything but social conservatives. Tanton serves on the FAIR board with Sarah G. Epstein, one of many past or present board members to work also for Planned Parenthood. Epstein once called China’s one-child policy “compassionate and fair” and is now working to obtain FDA approval for the dangerous quinacrine sterilization drug—“a permanent contraceptive solution” that sterilizes women by burning the fallopian tubes and upper uterus with acid.
Population control financiers, led by Colcom Foundation, donate millions to FAIR, CIS, NumbersUSA, and other groups like Negative Population Growth—an organization committed to cutting world population from its current 7 billion to below 2 billion. FAIR also has received funding from the Pioneer Fund, a group seeking to restore “the Darwinian-Galtonian perspective to the mainstream”—a reference to Charles Darwin and his cousin, Francis Galton, the father of eugenics.
Population control efforts arise out of support for abortion, eugenics, and reduced immigration, and are used to further extreme environmentalist beliefs. “U.S. environmental sustainability is not possible unless we greatly reduce immigration numbers,” NumbersUSA president Roy Beck wrote in 2010 on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.
Yet that extremist ideology hasn’t stopped GOP lawmakers—including Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and former Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif. (both members of the conservative Republican Study Committee)—along with other pro-lifers from working with the groups.
Do conservatives mind these associations? Pro-life Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, currently a member of the House Immigration Reform caucus, said, “If any group or organization supports the same thing that most of my constituents do, then to that extent we are in agreement.”
The influence of anti-immigration groups goes beyond Congress: Conservative activists like Eagle Forum president Phyllis Schlafly quote CIS research as unbiased fact. Last year she cited CIS reports painting immigrants as underachieving welfare recipients sucking life out of the U.S. economy. “The notion that foreigners are better and brighter than Americans is nonsense,” she wrote.
Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations at NumbersUSA, said her group doesn’t deceive lawmakers about its purpose: “We’re very clear about what we are.” But GOP lawmakers who don’t favor the groups’ population control and pro-abortion policies appear content to cast themselves alongside them as immigration hawks.
A 2001 John Tanton letter to Gary Gerst, NumbersUSA board chairman, detailed plans to hire a lobbyist who would work to “change Republicans’ perception of immigration so that when they encounter the word ‘immigrant,’ their reaction is ‘Democrat.’” With the help of 9/11, it seems to have worked for awhile: The House Immigration Reform Caucus, which favors border security over any other changes to immigration law, hit 110 members in 2007. Yet only 58 remain as the 113th Congress begins, with more Republicans distancing themselves from enforcement-only positions on immigration.
Republicans’ efforts to restrict immigration have hurt them politically, according to Hispanic Leadership Fund President Mario Lopez. Lopez recently wrote a report published in The Human Life Review documenting the entangling associations between anti-immigration and population control groups, and he told me Republicans have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. The pitch, he said, is: “‘It’s OK to say you hate immigrants because they’re never going to vote for you anyway.’ Then Republicans go out and do it, and the population control groups say, ‘See I told you so.’”
Many factors contribute to Republican views on immigration, but competing worldviews are also shaping the heart of the debate: Are people an asset or a liability? For Christians who believe humans are made in the image of God, they’re an asset. For those who believe humans are destroying the earth with their CO2 emissions, they’re a liability.
Rosemary Jenks at NumbersUSA said her group advocates for lower immigration levels to improve the economy and quality of life. She said allowing low-skilled immigrants into the country is “importing poverty.”
World Relief and other organizations want to change that perception among evangelicals, asking them to read one scripture about immigrants per day for 40 days. The National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and other groups are promoting the “I Was a Stranger” challenge—based on Matthew 25—in their member churches.
Richard Land, president of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told me about 80 percent of Southern Baptists agree with his view of immigration reform, which includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, or illegal immigrants. He believes most conservatives cooperate with anti-immigration groups because they don’t know the real objectives behind the rhetoric: “Most conservatives reject the philosophy of population control and do see human beings as assets, not liabilities—certainly the pro-life movement does.”
The current immigration reform debate in Washington could turn on how far conservatives—including a new generation of lawmakers like Rubio—choose to extend their pro-life beliefs.