Right-wing politics and the anti-immigration cause. (excerpts)

by Sara Diamond

Organizing Against Immigrants

During the 1980s, a small number of right-wing intellectuals devoted themselves to developing anti-immigration arguments. At the same time, two national lobbying organizations kept the issue alive for a larger constituency: those who subscribed to right-wing magazines and, therefore, also received direct mailings from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the American Immigration Control Foundation (AICF). Only in the 1990s did scores of small grass-roots organizations mobilize, mostly in California and other border states, to fight local campaigns against immigrants.

Before immigration became a hot issue, and while most of the Right was fixated on the Communist "menace" abroad, the leading promoters of anti-immigration thinking were the self-identified "paleoconservatives" (Diamond, 1995). The paleoconservatives were a group of intellectuals who viewed themselves as heirs to the Old Right, from the decades before the Cold War, when rightists advocated a non-interventionist role for the state in foreign affairs and the capitalist economy, combined with a "traditionalist" view of society as inherently unequal and undemocratic: Paleoconservatives, joined by Patrick Buchanan, opposed U.S. participation in United Nations-conducted wars (e.g., Iraq, 1991). They also opposed any kind of civil rights legislation to achieve racial and gender equality. While most right-wing activists of the 1980s, including Patrick Buchanan, were busy aiding and abetting anticommunist "freedom fighters" in Central America and elsewhere, the paleoconservatives fought a polemical campaign against their chief nemeses, the Cold War liberals, who by the 1980s had become neoconservatives and who, despite the rest of their reactionary agenda, nevertheless viewed the United States as ideally an ethnically pluralistic society.

Unlike the libertarians who viewed lax immigration policies as a boon to employers of cheap labor, the paleoconservatives rejected economic arguments, one way or another, on immigration. The organizational headquarters for the paleoconservatives was the Illinois-based Rockford Institute, publisher of the monthly Chronicles of Culture magazine. This was the outlet to follow on the immigration issue during the 1980s. The paleoconservatives ignored the question of whether "illegal" immigrants take jobs away from U.S. citizens and instead focused on the threat to cultural homogeneity posed by the influx of nonwhite immigrant groups. In a decade's worth of articles, the paleoconservatives argued that ethnicity, not a shared belief in core American values, was what gave the nation its identity. Some of the Chronicles writers went further, claiming that liberal elites sought to use large numbers of immigrants from Third World countries to increase the power of the state, by creating a new "underclass" and increased social problems - crime, illiteracy, and interethnic conflict - that only a New Class of elite bureaucrats would then be able to solve (Francis, 1995).

The focus on cultural homogeneity was central to early anti-immigrant activity. The most successful project was U.S. English, which sponsored state ballot initiatives to outlaw the use of languages other than English in the public realm. U.S. English began as a Washington, D.C., lobby founded by California's retired U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa in 1983 (Crawford, 1992: 4). U.S. English seized on local conflicts brewing, especially in Southern California, over bilingual education and the rise of an Asian immigrant merchant class. (Many Chinese and Korean store owners posted signs only in their native languages.) Hayakawa's group organized meetings in Anglo-dominated areas to suggest an action plan for white citizens worried about the growth of communities of color in their neighborhoods. Then in 1986 California's Proposition 63, an Official English amendment to the state constitution, was approved by 73% of California voters (Ibid.: 15-16). Thereafter, Official English bills were introduced in the legislatures of 37 states, and by 1990, 17 states had passed laws or constitutional amendments declaring English their official language (Ibid.: 16).

In reality, the Official English measures were largely symbolic and advisory, with virtually no impact on policy. What caught the attention of politicians was the broad popularity of what were, essentially, public referenda on the supremacy of Anglo culture.


Racial Reconciliation

There were anecdotal reports that some of the Proposition 187 signature gathering took place in evangelical churches. There was a common misperception that the initiative drew strong support from the organized Christian Right. The evidence shows the opposite. In fact, it is safe to say that anti-immigrant activism in California and elsewhere would have been much more widespread and more virulent were it not for the Christian Right's relative neglect of the immigration issue. Because the Christian Right was incorrectly perceived to be organized around explicitly racist policy goals, progressive activists assumed heavy Christian Right involvement in the pro-187 campaign. Here is what actually happened.

Toward the end of the fall 1994 campaign season, a number of California-based Christian Right groups and media outlets endorsed Proposition 187 among their lists of voting recommendations. Yet there was no high-profile, concerted effort to win support for the initiative. In the months leading up to the election, two articles in favor of fighting "illegal" immigration appeared in the bimonthly newspaper of the California Republican Assembly, which is an organization of state GOP activists from every legislative district. For the past several years, CRA has been dominated by Christian Right activists and political candidates. It is an agenda-setting apparatus for the movement's work in electoral politics, yet it gave little official support for Proposition 187.

This was also true for the two major national Christian Right organizations, Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition.


Despite the Christian Coalition's eagerness to be involved in all forms of electoral politics, the organization issued no position, pro or con, on Proposition 187. The Coalition's California director, Sara Divito Hardman, acknowledged in an interview with Christianity Today magazine that "most of our members were definitely in support of it," but, she said, as a matter of legality, not morality (Zipperer, 1995: 42).

If we assume that most Christian Right constituents voted, along with a majority of California voters, in favor of Proposition 187, we must wonder why the movement's leading organizations have remained conspicuously inattentive to the anti-immigration cause. The answer has to do with the ways in which the anti-immigration issue poses liabilities for the rest of the Christian Right's agenda. Coinciding with the formation of dozens of small anti-immigration activist groups, the Christian Right grew in scope and influence as the only truly mass-based social movement on the Right and as a major faction of the Republican Party. Rooted in the evangelical subculture, the organized Christian Right was responsive to trends underway within the churches. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of these trends was called "racial reconciliation" (Diamond, 1994a). It was a drive led by white evangelical clergy to publicly repent for decades of institutional racism, the kind that led to the formation of racially segregated Baptist and Pentecostal churches in the first place.

During the 1990s, the evangelical press was full of reportage on interracial church events and editorials on the need to break down racial barriers and to build a more ethnically diverse body of believers. The National Association of Evangelicals and other prominent organizations built new, multiethnic church associations. Most of this activity went unreported by the mainstream press, perhaps because it challenged prevailing stereotypes linking "fundamentalists" to old-fashioned racial bigotry.

For Christian Right activists, racial reconciliation within the churches coincided with an imperative to defy the image that the Right is monolithically racist. Christian Right leaders saw conservative people of color as an untapped source of new members, new allies, and new voters. The Reverend Louis Sheldon mobilized African American pastors to lobby for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. Other prominent conservatives of color were useful spokespeople against the extension of civil rights protections for gays and lesbians. Just as a minority of people of color began to voice opposition to affirmative action policies, it became obvious that many people of color held conservative views on a range of social policy issues. In the fall of 1993, the Christian Coalition released the results of a poll it commissioned showing that large percentages of African Americans and Latinos opposed abortion, gay rights, welfare, and affirmative action. The validity of the poll data was dubious, but the purpose was clear. Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed pledged that his movement would no longer "concede the minority community to the political left," and he announced that the Coalition would begin recruiting from within Black and Latino churches.

In recent years, the Coalition and other major Christian Right groups have invited prominent conservatives of color to speak at their conferences. This move looks like blatant tokenism, and it is. Few people of color are active within the Christian Right. But the racial reconciliation strategy has the potential to grow beyond rhetoric, to involve people of color in leadership roles.

Leaders of the Christian Right understood the changing ethnic composition of the United States, and they saw that recent Latino immigrants were responsible for impressive growth in many evangelical churches (Tapia, 1995). Many people in the Christian Right have backgrounds in foreign missionary work. They are not interested in working for the economic interests of people of color, but they see them more as potential converts than as adversaries.

Here we see a split between two camps of rightists. Short-term opportunists, such as Governor Pete Wilson, use anti-immigrant themes to win support from fearful white voters. More farsighted pragmatists, such as Christian Right strategists, want to make common cause with conservative people of color. The pragmatists wish to claim to represent a majority of Americans. They seek to organize winning electoral coalitions around issues of traditional "morality," not around overt race-baiting.

This divergence of opinion among rightists was reflected in the limited debate that took place regarding Proposition 187. At the height of the campaign, when polls showed the initiative headed for victory, a major Republican think tank publicized its opposition. Empower America was founded by Jack Kemp, William Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and former Congress member Vin Weber on the heels of the 1992 presidential elections. Their goal was to solidify and represent a bloc of Republicans committed to Reaganite foreign, economic, and social policies, but opposed to the kind of ultra-nationalist rhetoric espoused by Patrick Buchanan (Diamond, 1993).

In 1994, Empower America tried to exert leadership on the immigration issue. Weeks before the election, Bennett and Kemp released a statement, summarized in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, calling on Republicans to retreat from a crusade against immigration. Bennett and Kemp stressed their support for curbing illegal immigration using existing laws. Yet they worried that "the legitimate concerns about illegal immigrants are broadening into an ugly antipathy toward all immigrants" (Bennett and Kemp, 1994). They argued that immigrants are a "net positive gain economically," and that immigrants come to the United States with the kind of "impressive energy and entrepreneurial spirit" and "a deeply rooted religious faith" that makes them ideal future citizens (Ibid.).

The nub of Bennett and Kemp's statement was that the anti-immigration cause, "perceived to bring short-term political advantage," was actually in the longer term "a loser for the GOP." They argued that the Republicans risked turning away potential new voters among growing Asian and Hispanic populations, nationwide and especially in California. Moreover, they argued that since immigration is opposed strongly by African Americans, unionists, and environmentalists - all key constituencies for the Democratic Party - the GOP ought to encourage the Democrats to be the ones associated with hostility toward new immigrants, while Republicans ought to "welcome" them (Bennett and Kemp, 1994). They cited an article in the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review magazine (Fall 1994) in which businessman and one-time California gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz argued that "if used properly, immigration could serve as the issue that breaks the Democratic Party and forges a new and dominant conservative/Republican governing coalition" (Unz, 1994: 37).

The Bennett-Kemp statement received minimal play in the mainstream press, which was focused on reporting poll data showing Proposition 187 beaded for a big victory. On the Right, the Bennett-Kemp statement went over like a lead balloon. Human Events newspaper reported that California Republicans were "furious" and determined to sink any hopes Kemp had of running for president (Human Events, 1994). National Review magazine responded with a cover article, "Why Kemp and Bennett Are Wrong on Immigration." In it, William F. Buckley, Jr., acknowledged that with California's growing Asian and Hispanic populations, initiatives such as 187 could "evolve into massive anti-GOP resentments by the majority of Californians." Yet Buckley supported the proposition on grounds that Californians should not have to pay for social services for immigrants (Buckley, 1994: 78).

National Review editor John O'Sullivan, like the paleoconservative writers who had spent years honing anti-immigration arguments, tried to shift the debate away from either economic or electoral considerations. The issue for O'Sullivan boiled down to a single theme: for too long, liberals have claimed that America is an idea, rather than a nation, and that what unifies Americans are not blood ties, but ideals of liberty and equality. For O'Sullivan the reverse was true. What unifies and ought to unify the nation is a shared (Anglo) ethnicity and culture. To link national identity to a philosophy of cultural pluralism is, O'Sullivan wrote, to strengthen the welfare state, particularly in its role as distributor of benefits to particular aggrieved groups (O'Sullivan, 1994: 36-45, 76).


Sara Diamond has written about right-wing social movements for many years. She is the author of Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (Guilford Press, 1995); Facing the Wrath: Confronting the Right in Dangerous Times (Common Courage Press, 1996); and Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (South End Press, 1989).

These excerpts reprinted with permission of Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict, and World Order. A complete version of the article, including footnotes and references, first appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of the Journal. Social Justice, Fall 1996, vol. 23, no.3, p.154(15).

This article first appeared in Defending Immigrant Rights: An Activist Resource Kit, published by Political Research Associates, © 2002.

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