Column: Stop letting hate groups control the immigration debate

Vice President Kamala Harris talks to the press during her visit to El Paso, Texas, and the U.S.-Mexico border on June 25.
Vice President Kamala Harris talks to the press during her visit to El Paso, Texas, and the U.S.-Mexico border on June 25.

(Associated Press )

President Biden is making the same mistake President Obama made in his first term: catering to xenophobes while performing compassion toward immigrants.

The strategy lays out the red carpet for Trumpism 2.0.

Either Democrats dramatically reinvent the immigration debate in defense of multiracial democracy, or they reinforce white paranoia and accelerate our descent into white nationalism. They can’t have it both ways.

Obama tried and failed. By ramping up deportations to historic levels while claiming he was focused on felons, he conflated immigration with criminality in the average mind. Nativists then used his decision not to deport Dreamers — people brought to the U.S. as children — to paint him as an open-borders president.


No matter what Biden does, Republicans will attack his policies as “open borders.” No matter how few people make it to the U.S., Fox News will send cameras to conjure a border apocalypse. Neither Biden nor the Democrats can control that. What they can control is whether they take the bait by playing into and promoting anti-immigrant panic.

On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas took the bait during a visit to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, insisting: “I cannot communicate this message too strongly: that individuals should not put their life savings in the hands of smuggling organizations.” He added: “The border is not open.”

The statement stood in absurd contrast to his celebration minutes earlier of the port of entry’s reopening to non-essential travel for foreign tourists. He defended the continued use of a Trump-era public health rule to expel most asylum seekers. Apparently, only people fleeing persecution can bring COVID to the U.S.

Mayorkas insisted that the administration is committed to “respecting the dignity” of asylum seekers. He blamed the reinstatement of another Trump policy, “Remain in Mexico,” on a court order and said the program — which has resulted in hundreds of rapes and kidnapping of asylum seekers in Mexico — “does not reflect our values as a country.” Yet the administration has chosen to expand the program to include Haitian asylum seekers, which goes beyond the Trump policy.

Cowardice and a lack of imagination are to blame for Democrats’ failure to come up with a cohesive counter-narrative to Republicans’ fearmongering. But many in the national media are also at fault. One gotcha question the media love to ask is, “Do you have plans to visit the southern border?”

Biden was asked that question during a CNN Town Hall in October. Vice President Kamala Harris was asked the same thing repeatedly in June because she didn’t go there during her Central America trip; she was hounded into visiting the border later that month.

Rather than pressing Biden about his promise to protect millions of undocumented essential workers and community members, many reporters are following the Fox News formula of fixating on the numbers at the border. This spring, Media Matters for America found that Fox News steadily drove the border-crisis narrative, which cable networks CNN and MSNBC then seemed to adopt.

Top-tier news outlets also keep giving prominence to organizations that peddle anti-immigrant views, including those classified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies.


Media Matters for America said it found that since January 2019, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Associated Press published 203 articles that cited those groups or the ideologically aligned NumbersUSA, often without “sufficient context” about their backgrounds. Those groups were created or nurtured by John Tanton, a notorious white nationalist who promoted a race-based opposition to immigration.

Hassan Ahmad, a Virginia attorney who is suing the University of Michigan to get access to Tanton’s donated papers, told me that centrist or left-leaning publications citing the Tanton groups is more harmful than Fox News doing so. “It actually enhances the veneer of legitimacy of these organizations as a rational opposing viewpoint on immigration,” he said.

The sway of Tanton’s network dates back to the 1980s, when he helped make English California’s official language. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, legislation that was deeply influenced by FAIR and which penalized and criminalized undocumented immigrants. And Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Miller, a close ally of Tanton’s groups, gutted the asylum and refugee systems.

It’s dangerous to give false equivalency to an “anti-human rights perspective,” Sergio Muñoz, policy director at Media Matters for America, told me. He said that if journalists want to quote those groups, they should include context. Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, agreed: “When you legitimize this stuff, that’s how it ends up in the halls of Congress.”

Republicans understand that whoever controls the narrative controls the agenda. On that, they have benefited enormously from media outlets actively normalizing anti-immigrant hysteria.