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Group opposing immigration bill plans full-scale campaign on House

Roy H. Beck, president of the anti-immigration reform group NumbersUSA, speaks with staff members in the group's offices in Arlington, Va.
(Ryan Rayburn, Chicago Tribune)

WASHINGTON — The day after the Senate passed its immigration overhaul in June, leading opponent Roy H. Beck convened his top strategists at a corner table of a pricey restaurant to discuss what went wrong and to plan ways to stop the bill from becoming law.

They brainstormed over rockfish and steak for 2 1/2 hours on how to derail any talk in the House of legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants — which Beck and his supporters view as unacceptable amnesty.

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“Believe me, we are expecting a fight,” Beck said later.

Beck heads NumbersUSA, arguably the most powerful advocacy group opposing the immigration overhaul. Its political muscle comes from tens of thousands of devoted supporters who can be mustered at short notice to protest at public gatherings and to swarm congressional offices with angry phone calls and faxes.

In 2007, when Congress last tried overhauling immigration law, NumbersUSA flooded lawmakers’ offices with a million faxes in opposition. The outpouring caught the overhaul’s supporters by surprise, and helped set off a wave of conservative resistance that killed the bill.

Now Beck says the group will mount a full-scale assault on the Republican-led House, where immigration reform is far less popular than in the Senate. The plan is likely to include another fax and phone blitz, and targeted TV ads in some districts encouraging supporters to speak out at town hall meetings, along with other lobbying efforts.

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“On a grass-roots level, it is all about trying to hold the Republicans” in line, Beck said.

Pro-immigration reform forces, including some Republicans, are fighting to hold NumbersUSA in check.

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They note that NumbersUSA, which shares a $6.5-million budget with a related foundation, seeks to drastically cut both illegal and legal immigration with the goal of stopping U.S. population growth. Some of NumbersUSA’s money comes from groups that support Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups that are anathema to many social conservatives, as well as environmental organizations that work on climate change.

“They are influential because they are masking themselves as conservative,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington-based advocacy group that works to integrate Latinos into the conservative movement. “Say where you stand on population control and global warming. You will see the reaction with conservatives. That’s the problem. The dishonesty.”

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Critics on both the left and right say NumbersUSA’s clout has waned as public opinion has shifted. Last month’s 68-32 vote in the Senate to approve the immigration bill proved that, they say.

“While NumbersUSA might credit themselves with killing immigration reform in 2007, they can also credit themselves with helping Republicans lose the 2012 election” because of its hard-line stance, said Domenic Powell, senior organizer for Center for New Community, a Chicago-based advocacy group. “I think the Republican Party has recognized that and isn’t offering them the same echo chamber.”

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Beck, 65, a former newspaper reporter in Michigan, started NumbersUSA in 1996 with John Tanton, an ophthalmologist who was prominent in environmental and zero-population-growth groups but who was accused of associations with white supremacist groups.

For the first six years, contributions to Beck’s group were funneled through Tanton’s nonprofit foundation, U.S. Inc. Another Tanton-backed group, ProEnglish, which lobbies to make English the official U.S. language, still shares office space with NumbersUSA in Arlington, Va.

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Beck says his group has been independent of Tanton, who suffers from advanced Parkinson’s disease, since 2002. He says pro-immigration reform forces use Tanton to suggest NumbersUSA is anti-Latino. That isn’t true, he says.

“To talk about changing immigration numbers is to say nothing against the individual immigrants in this country,” Beck wrote on the group’s website. “Illegal aliens deserve humane treatment even as they are detected, detained and deported.”

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Beck portrays NumbersUSA as a populist movement fighting the nation’s most powerful interests. In his telling, they include “the union establishment, the business establishment, the media establishment with their editorial policies, the religious establishment — Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, evangelical; the Republican establishment, the Democratic establishment.”

Beck says adding millions of immigrant workers would increase unemployment, depress wages and worsen economic disparity. In his view, neither political party stands up for low-wage workers.

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“You’ve got the Democrats who believe their future is in having a larger and larger population with shallow roots in this country and who need a nanny state, and you have the Republicans who are working for the robber barons of today,” he said in an interview at his office.

Opponents counter that reforming immigration would boost the economy and lift wages. They argue that Beck’s populist talk is a smoke screen for his anti-immigration views.

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“They don’t do anything to fight for low-income American workers other than fight to derail immigration reform,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington-based group that seeks immigration reform. “It makes it pretty obvious that it’s not that they care about American workers, but that they don’t like immigrants.”

Beck said he didn’t foresee the Senate passing the immigration bill last month, believing his war room operation would pressure vulnerable members, as it had in the past. The names and phone numbers of all 100 senators are written — Republicans in red, Democrats in blue — on long rolls of white paper still tacked to a wall at the NumbersUSA offices.

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As the debate heated up, members and supporters — using phone numbers provided by NumbersUSA — made as many as 20,000 calls in one day to lawmakers. The group’s leaders said they overloaded some Senate phone lines.

But Beck hadn’t counted on a last-minute “border surge” plan that included $46 billion to boost security along the southwestern border, he said. It helped win votes from eight Republicans as well as every Democrat.

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As he talked strategy, Beck pointed across the Potomac to Washington, where a dark thundercloud hovered over the white monuments along the National Mall, all the way down to the Capitol.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Beck said, seeing an omen. “I think the Senate office buildings are in darkness, in shadow, but the House office buildings are brilliant. That is a good sign. It is a good sign.”

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brian.bennett@latimes.com

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com


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