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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Center for Immigration Studies Strikes Back



A lengthy report by the Center for Immigration Studies released on March 18, 2010 is titled “Immigration and the SPLC: How the Southern Poverty Law Center Invented a Smear, Served La Raza, Manipulated the Press, and Duped its Donor.”  

The report targets SPLC and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) for their role in an ongoing campaign to fight hate against immigrants and Latinos. According to the new report, “The SPLC’s decision to smear FAIR [Federation for American Immigration Reform] was the work of a kangaroo court, one convened to reach a pre-determined verdict by inventing or distorting evidence. The ‘Stop the Hate’ campaign would more accurately be labeled as a campaign to ‘Stop the Debate.’”

Although highly critical of SPLC’s methodology and motives, the CIS report doesn’t closely examine the details of SPLC’s charge that FAIR is hate group and as such bears responsibility for hate crimes against Latinos. Nor does the report examine the existence of hate groups and hate crimes in relation to the escalation of the immigration debate in this country.

Instead, the CIS reports strikes back at two of the principals in the campaign to delegitimize the immigration restrictionist institutes, including CIS. The new report examines the integrity and credibility of SPLC and the National Council of La Raza, the civil rights group that relies on SPLC research for its “Stop the Hate” website.

According to the CIS report, “Rather than engage in a debate, La Raza and its allies have waged a campaign to have the other side shunned by the press, civil society, and elected officials. It is an effort to destroy the reputations of its targets. It also seeks to intimidate and coerce others into silence. It undermines basic principles of civil society and democratic discussion.”

Written by former journalist Jerry Kammer, currently a senior research fellow at CIS, the report is a must read for those who closely follow the immigration debate.

While making little contribution to our understanding of the virulence of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the public debate, the CIS report offers fascinating observations about the role of John Tanton. The current and historical links of FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA have formed the core of the criticism of these restrictionist institutes by immigrant-rights groups.

The report notes these connections:

“John Tanton founded FAIR in 1979. Six years later he was one of several individuals who were instrumental in starting the Center for Immigration Studies. CIS operated under FAIR’s non-profit umbrella for about six months, until its independent non-profit status was approved. In the late 1990s Tanton helped launch NumbersUSA. Because of the prominent role these organizations have played in the national immigration debate, he can rightly be described as the father of the modern movement to restrict immigration.”

According to Kammer, “[T] small-town doctor from Northern Michigan combines relentless organizational energies with a provincial temperament and a tin ear for the sensitivities of immigration. In an arena that requires the ability to frame issues in a way that broadens consensus, he sometimes speaks with a free-wheeling bluntness that can upset even those who admire him. Some say that Tanton has shown a tendency to be unnecessarily provocative, a tendency that some have seized upon to change the topic from immigration to Tanton himself.”

An interview with Roger Conner, the first executive director of FAIR, also touches on motivations and perceptions in the immigration debate. Conner told Kammer, “Immigration touches so many sensitivities and stirs so many passions that it requires careful handling by those who seek to change policy. Talking about Tanton, Conner said, “It is not enough to “be racially inclusive in your heart,” he said. “You have to avoid even the appearance of bigotry.”

Kammer writes, “Conner has a blunt message to those who complain of a double standard: ‘You’re right — it isn’t fair. Get over it.’” “‘Motives matter on immigration,” said Conner, “The risk of a big-tent philosophy was — and is — that if you don’t explicitly exclude the fringe groups from your tent, you can ruin it for the majority of Americans — those of us who are just as opposed to intolerance or racism as we are to excessive immigration.”

SPLC and its allies in this campaign stand on their strongest ground when they point to the highly objectionable activities and rhetoric of many of the grassroots groups associated with FAIR.

FAIR’s publications and media statements generally stick closely to the institute’s contentions about mass immigration and the “open borders” goals of CIR advocates. But there is ample evidence that grassroots organizations and activists allied with FAIR do indeed have white supremacist and nativist agendas.  

Does this make FAIR itself a “hate group,” which is responsible for the words and actions of its grassroots allies? The CIS report doesn’t weigh in directly on this issue, but the quoted observations of a former FAIR executive director about risks of a big-tent organizing tactics are clearly relevant to assessing FAIR’s own objectionable practices.

NCLR is a pro-CIR civil rights group that restrictionist institutes and anti-immigrant groups love to criticize because of its controversial name and its history of identity politics. CIS associates itself with that sniping tradition in this report. The report unprofessionally and routinely identifies NCLR not by its name or its initials but simply as La Raza.


The inclusion of the term “la raza” in NCLR’s name is explicable historically given NCLR’s origins in 1968 as part of the Chicano self-awareness and civil -rights movement. The members of that movement commonly used “la raza” as descriptor of Mexican-American and Mexican identity and of their common bonds. The Spanish word raza is variously defined to mean race, breed, and family; and when in conjunction with the article la (the), raza is commonly used among Mexican American activists to mean “our community” or “our people.”


NCLR has considered changing its name to avoid the criticism that it is a supremacist or racist group – “the race” – but instead has tried to avoid the criticism by routinely referring to itself as NCLR.


NCLR also has a special page on its website that “answers critics” and explains its name. As NCLR notes, “the full term coined by [José] Vasconcelos, ‘La Raza Cósmica,’ meaning the “cosmic people,” was developed to reflect not purity but the mixture inherent in the Hispanic people.


By allying itself with SPLC in this badly targeted campaign, NCLR has again opened itself up to criticism about its name, politics, and motivations.


CIS moves into this opening in a section of the report titled “If FAIR Played the Same Game,” which begins with this observation: “If FAIR chose to adopt the tactics of the SPLC and its allies, it would seek to divert attention from the substantive issues of immigration. It would probe for suspect motivation and association. It would take out full-page ads in Roll Call and Politico, taunting La Raza for controversial moments in its history.”


Coupled with this justifiable criticism of NCLR’s “Stop the Hate” campaign are helpful observations about Tanton and Vasconcelos. Kammer writes, for example, that “Vasconcelos was in some ways an intellectual opposite of the scientifically and quantitatively oriented John Tanton. But in a few fundamental respects, they were similar. Both became highly cultured, accomplished men with an inclination toward moralizing and intellectual arrogance. Both thought constantly of the meaning of national identity and cultural unity.”


Seized as a tactic to delegitimize their opponents, the smear campaign against the restrictionist institutes has been, at best, a debilitating distraction in the struggle for immigration reform.  The ongoing campaign highlights the all-too-common willingness of those who are convinced of the righteousness of their cause to stoop to character assassination and shoddy analysis and research. But worse still is that the effort to tar the restrictionist institutes with the "hate group" label has left us with no better understanding of the anti-immigrant backlash movement.


It’s time for NCLR, America’s Voice, Center for American Progress, Center for New Community, and the foundations that have supported this smear campaign to disassociate themselves from such character-assassination tactics. The immigration debate has been ill served by such tactics, and the reputation of the liberal immigration reform movement needlessly damaged. 

Photo: John Tanton

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