Immigration, Health Debates Cross Paths
Activists on Both Sides Step Up Efforts

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

As Congress's debate over health-care legislation lumbers toward a defining test for the Obama presidency, partisans on both sides of another issue -- immigration -- escalated their own proxy war this week, concluding that the fates of the two issues have become politically linked.

Trying to beat back a furor over whether President Obama's centerpiece initiative would subsidize health care for illegal immigrants, liberal supporters of an immigration overhaul on Monday called a main proponent of that claim a "hate group," citing its founder's ties to white supremacists and interest in racist ideas, such as eugenics.

The counterattack comes as opponents of illegal immigration plan a Capitol Hill lobbying push, starting when 47 conservative radio hosts hold a "town hall of the airwaves" in Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday to highlight the costs of illegal immigration.

Strategists on both sides said the clash underscores how Republican activists have stirred populist anxiety against not only Obama's health-care effort but also other parts of his agenda, and how core Democratic groups have concluded that it is time to return fire.

In an ad published in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call and a teleconference with reporters, America's Voice, an umbrella group of immigrant advocacy organizations, accused the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a prime lobby for reduced immigration, of leading xenophobic efforts to lower the number of Hispanic people in the United States.

Allies of America's Voice, including leaders of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group, and Media Matters, a news watchdog group, alleged that FAIR and related organizations play on nativist, racially charged fears to drown out debate.

"The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is designated a HATE GROUP by the Southern Poverty Law Center," the ad reads, citing a December 2007 listing by an independent group based in Montgomery, Ala., that monitors racist organizations. "Extremist groups, like FAIR, shouldn't write immigration policy," the ad concludes.

Dan Stein, president of FAIR, called attacks on the group's founder, John Tanton, false and outdated.

"Saying something that's not true or telling a lie 50 times doesn't make it more true than the first," Stein said, noting that the SPLC began its attacks earlier this decade. "They've decided to engage in unsubstantiated, invidious name-calling, smearing millions of people in this movement who simply want to see the law enforced and, frankly, lower levels of immigration," Stein said.

Ongoing Attacks

Supporters of immigration reform usually stopped short of such blunt attacks when Congress debated the issue in 2006 and 2007.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, said conservative activists have been trying to intimidate Congress by tapping into a thin but vocal vein of populist anger. Sharry acknowledged that the best scenario for a successful legalization push would be "a comeback victory for health-care reform." Obama has said he will turn to immigration next after energy legislation.

"We didn't call them out last time, we thought we were in a political debate. Now we realize it's part political debate and . . . part culture war," Sharry said. "These talk-show guys and FAIR, this isn't about immigration policy, as much as they think there are way too many Latinos in this country and they want to get rid of a couple of million of them."

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank spun off FAIR, said Obama and congressional Democrats have lost credibility in the dispute over health coverage for illegal immigrants and probably were surprised by its intensity.

"Right now there are a lot of members of Congress who might have thought the immigration issue wasn't as hot for opponents as it was a couple of years ago," Krikorian said. "They were disabused of that notion."

Focus on FAIR Founder

Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's shout of "You lie!" during Obama's speech to Congress last Wednesday night dramatized the dispute, in which critics say Democrats are not doing enough to verify that illegal immigrants will not receive expanded health coverage at taxpayers' expense. The White House said Obama's plan would tighten restrictions and require more verification of legal residency. Supporters say research indicates that abuse is rare, that enforcement costs outweigh savings and that U.S. citizens may be improperly denied help.

In a series of reports, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have focused on Tanton, who founded FAIR in 1979. The groups quote from Tanton's correspondence with Holocaust deniers and white nationalist thinkers, his expressed interest in anti-Semitic writers and the study of eugenics, and concerns about the "educability" of Hispanics and the loss of a "European American" majority.

"We want to keep that drumbeat going so politicians know when FAIR lobbyists speak to them, this is who they represent," said Heidi Beirich, an SPLC researcher.

Stein defended FAIR's track record, cited its diverse membership and said the group "stands four-square against discrimination based on race, ethnicity or religion." He said attacks on Tanton are taken out of context and "simply do not reflect the true character of the person," whom Stein described as a "Jeffersonian or Renaissance man or intellect" whose interest and writings span a wide range of issues.

He criticized America's Voice and allied groups as "juvenile mud throwers who seem unprepared to engage in serious public debate."

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