What Makes Opponents of Immigration Reform So Effective?

October 20, 2015
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by Katie Worth Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

(AP images)

In American political debates, money often has the loudest voice. But that has not always been the case with immigration reform.

In the lead-up to the 2013-’14 debate in Congress over comprehensive reform, conservative estimates put the amount spent pushing for a bill in the hundreds of millions. Reform had the support of the preponderance of politically powerful institutions in the United States, including Silicon Valley, big agriculture, the hospitality industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, unions, educators, human rights advocates and many churches. A majority of Americans backed reform too. Dozens of grassroots organizations took to social media, met with politicians and organized rallies across the nation in favor of an overhaul.

Driving the opposition were three loosely affiliated groups, each with a budget of less than $10 million and staffs of less than 40 people. They were buoyed by a scrappy array of local groups around the country working to stem the flow of migration and increase enforcement of immigration laws.

But despite being out-spent and out-numbered both on the ground and in the polls, opponents of reform won the fight — as they have every major battle over immigration for more than 20 years.

What makes them so powerful?

If you ask the leaders of the movement, it comes down to classic organizing. Roy Beck, leader of the grassroots “controlled immigration” group NumbersUSA, has grown his organization’s support from several thousand 15 years ago to 3 million today. That group, along with the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, formed the core of the opposition.

Beck credits their success to “all the usual things that everybody uses – faxes, phone calls, showing up at offices, showing up at town hall meetings.” In ’13 and ’14, they put these tools to work to halt a measure that would have provided a path to citizenship for as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants, expanded border controls and made it harder to employ unauthorized workers.

Reform opponents argued that the bill was too weak on enforcement, allowed too many new legal workers into the market and was too expensive. They advocated alternate solutions that would rigorously limit both legal and illegal migration, halt automatic birthright citizenship, increase border patrol forces by thousands and build a wall along several hundred miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

NumbersUSA rallied their supporters to contact lawmakers in the House. They sent a simple message: Incumbent Republicans would get a shellacking from more conservative candidates in the next primary elections if they didn’t stand strong on immigration.

“We managed to sour the House Republicans to the bill,” said Beck.

Their effort proved so successful, said Beck, that soon after the bill passed the Senate in 2013 by a vote of 68 to 32, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced that he would not bring the measure to the House floor.

“He didn’t have to gauge where his conference stood on the issue. He already knew there was no way the Republicans would allow him to bring it to the floor. It was killed right there.”

The bill’s opponents also had a rhetorical advantage: Their pro-enforcement position is simple, easily articulated and associated with concrete actions, like building a wall or deporting people, said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the Migration Policy Institute. Pro-reform groups promote woolier concepts, like addressing the underlying causes of undocumented immigration and reworking pieces of the nation’s byzantine visa system.

“It’s a much more complicated argument,” Rosenblum said. “There’s no off-the-shelf immigration reform that really addresses it comprehensively.”

Supporters, meanwhile, had the classic problems of a broad coalition: Not all allies wanted the same things. Reform backers from Silicon Valley, for instance, wanted to hire more highly educated professionals from abroad, while the agriculture industry hoped to grow the pool of migrant farmworkers.

“It’s easy to peel off a member or two of the coalition and have the whole thing fall apart,” Rosenblum said. That’s partly what happened in the 2007 immigration reform effort, when labor groups split over a compromise bill crafted by the Bush administration.

That left opponents with only having to stir up enough hesitation to block change.

“There’s a structural advantage to people who favor status quo and the status quo right now is enforcement,” Rosenblum said.

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, sees a more worrisome force in some of the opposition to comprehensive reform: racism.

The movement “plays on existing prejudices, and it also introduces a plethora of racist conspiracy theories about the evil things that those evil people are doing to us,” said Potok.

Beck has attempted to distance NumbersUSA from more extreme elements within the anti-immigration movement. Its website prominently displays a link to an essay he wrote called “No to Immigrant Bashing.” And he consistently focuses his case against immigration on economics.

“It’s not about racism, it’s about nationalism,” Beck told FRONTLINE. “It’s really a question about whether the members of this national community have priority over corporate interests driving down wages with foreign labor.”

Whatever their motivation, those who oppose expanded protections for the nation’s undocumented population may be on the verge of another victory: Legal challenges have waylaid initiatives announced by President Barack Obama last November that would have delayed deportation and provided work permits to millions in the country illegally.

Immediately after the actions were announced, the attorney general of Texas sued to put a stop to it, arguing that the president overstepped his constitutional authorities and unfairly imposed financial burdens on states. An additional 25 states — nearly all led by Republican governors — joined the suit, seeking an injunction that would stop the administration’s actions from taking effect until the courts could rule on them.

In February, a Texas judge granted the injunction, which is now being considered by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Whatever the outcome of that appeal — which could come within weeks, or may take months — the case appears on course for consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, a development that would defer implementation even longer.

This strategic delay is now in its ninth month, and threatens to stretch until the end of Obama’s presidency. Already, the administration has put a hold on hiring 1,000 people to implement the program. It has also been forced to find other uses for a building leased for $7.8 million that had been intended to accommodate them.

Civil rights attorney Nina Perales, who is representing three undocumented immigrants seeking to intervene in the case, said the best-case scenario for a resolution is June 2016. But even in that scenario — and if the administration wins the case —  the long pause could successfully derail the initiatives, since it will be difficult to fully implement them in Obama’s remaining few months in office.

And many attorneys watching the case believe it’s likely to take longer than that to crawl through the courts. This would leave the initiatives in the hands of the next president — an outcome that would be counted as yet another success for those who desire strict limits on migration into the country.

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