Immigration Opponents

The Shady Group Behind the African-American Anti-Immigration Rally

Among the tangle of groups, funders, and leaders in the black anti-immigration effort are many seasoned activists who have long been conducting the same crusade. Is their movement being used as a token front for a racist immigration agenda? Michelle Cottle reports.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, via Getty

Calling all immigration reform opponents! Monday is the day to stand up and be counted at the D.C. March for Jobs, as tea-party protesters will convene on Freedom Plaza before making their way to the Capitol. Scheduled speakers include Sen. Ted Cruz, Reps. Steve King and Mo Brooks, and former Rep. Allen West. Their theme for the day: Just Say “No” to Amnesty.

What makes this protest different from other protests? Officially, it’s being hosted not by any Tea Party affiliate but by the Black American Leadership Alliance, a self-described nonprofit dedicated to “Protecting the Futures of Black Americans.” Multiple BALA members, including founder Leah Durant, will speak at the rally, along with other ministers and activists from the black community. Message to critics: Take all your snotty assumptions about immigration opponents being a bunch of racist white folk and shove ‘em.

In early June, BALA issued an open letter (PDF) to the Senate Gang of Eight and lawmakers from states with high rates of black unemployment. In it, BALA laid out the economic case against immigration vis a vis the black community, called on legislators to recognize the “devastating effects of amnesty and mass immigration” on African Americans in particular, and “implor[ed] each Member to fulfill his or her duty to the millions of Americans struggling to find work” by rejecting the current Senate bill and instead pushing to reduce immigration, legal and illegal alike. Since then, BALA’s phone has been ringing off the hook with media requests, and its members—notably Durant, a former Justice Department attorneyare burning up the TV and radio circuit, their message having found a particularly receptive audience among conservative media hosts. (Bill O’Reilly, Laura Ingraham, Mike Huckabee, Glen Beck…) The Daily Caller has written excitedly about their efforts, as has National Review. And Tea Party folks sound downright giddy discussing their new partners.

BALA leaders, meanwhile, enthuse about the wave of public attention their cause is receiving. In a phone interview Wednesday, Durant proclaimed herself “heartened” by the “outpouring of interest and support from people all over the country.” She told me, “What we’re seeing are large segments of the population who feel like they have not been able to insert themselves into the discussion.”

That said, BALA isn’t your classic grassroots protest movement. Although it is technically a new player on the political scene—it popped up mid-May, with the launch of a Facebook page—its leaders are not. Among the group’s dozen or so members are several seasoned activists who have long been conducting this same anti-immigration crusade by means of an evolving series of similar groups. The organizations’ names change—BALA, the African American Leadership Council, Choose Black America, the Coalition for the Future American Worker—but the message remains constant: Immigration is killing the black community. It’s a simplistic, us-vs.-them argument that some black leaders find misleading, dangerously divisive, and sadly predictable. “We’ve seen this before,” says Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “This is the same page pulled from an over-20-year-old playbook.”

But questions regarding BALA go beyond the particulars of its current message. Several of the group’s leadersDurant, Frank Morris, the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, and T. Willard Fair—have longstanding ties with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and other controversial groups in the broader anti-immigration movement. Most of these groups emerged from a network created beginning in the late 1970s by John Tanton, the father of the modern anti-immigration movement, whose flirtations with white nationalism and eugenics (and whose enduring chumminess with devotees of both) have been documented at length by anti-extremist watchdog groups such as the ADL, the Chicago-based Center for New Community and others. The Southern Poverty Law Center has gone as far as to designate FAIR, the Tanton network’s mothership, a “hate group.” (FAIR unsurprisingly rejects this classification.) Among the group’s eyebrow-raising moves was accepting $1.2 million dollars in funding from the pro-eugenics, white-supremacist Pioneer Fund in the 1980s and ‘90s. (You can read more about the history of FAIR and Tanton’s related groups here (PDF), here, and here)

As a result of the many links between BALA’s leaders and the Tanton network, hate-group watchdogs have expressed concern that the organization is merely the latest in a series of minority front groups providing anti-immigration extremists cover from charges of racism. “It’s blatant tokenism,” says Aaron Flanagan of the Center for New Community. “And tokenism is not a word I use lightly.” Henderson is more diplomatic: “It’s troubling when opportunists use the economic challenges of the African-American community as cover for ideological and political extremism to align themselves with groups like FAIR, which had their own genesis in the eugenics movement.”

The tangle of groups, funders, and leaders in the black anti-immigration effort—as in the broader movement—can be hard to follow. (This is not an accident, asserts Flanagan.) But outfits such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for New Community have done yeoman’s work connecting the dots.

For instance, BALA founder and media star Leah Durant now serves as executive director of the dubiously named Progressives for Immigration Reform, a group that seeks less to reform immigration than to halt it altogether. Last year, PFIR ran a national ad campaign criticizing the government for issuing so many green cards and calling on leaders to “reduce mass immigration until all Americans are back to work.” (The Center for New Community has written repeatedly about PFIR’s ties to the Tanton network [PDF].) - Prior to PFIR, Durant worked as an attorney for FAIR’s legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, currently home to the legal minds behind the controversial anti-immigration laws passed by states such as Arizona and Alabama.

Similarly, BALA’s Frank Morris sits on the boards of FAIR and its think-tank offshoot, the Center for Immigration Studies, as well as on the advisory board of the Carrying Capacity Network, an anti-immigration/population stabilization group with some downright unsavory leaders. (One of CCN’s veteran board members—and its former chairman—is Virginia Abernethy, a self-proclaimed “ethnic separatist” with multiple ties to the neo-confederate Council of Concerned Citizens.) Morris also served as chairman of the now-defunct Choose Black America, a BALA-liked group born during the last big push for immigration reform in the mid-2000s. Displaying a gift for hyperbole, CBA’s web site warned: “Mass illegal immigration has been the single greatest impediment to black advancement in this country over the past 25 years.” A FAIR offshoot, CBA’s debut was announced at a May 2006 FAIR-sponsored press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC—a move reminiscent of the press conference held at the Press Club this April by the African American Leadership Council, which, in May, changed its name and became BALA. (Durant says the name was changed because several members preferred to be identified as “Black Americans” rather than “African Americans.”) The AALC press event, reports the Center for New Community, was being run out of the offices of Durant’s group PFIR, on whose board Morris also sits.

T. Willard Fair, another BALA member, also has a notable history of anti-immigrant activism. Like Morris, he is a board member of the FAIR think tank, the Center for Immigration Studies. Back in 2007, he appeared prominently in an ad campaign sponsored by the Coalition for the Future American Worker, a FAIR-related anti-immigration group aimed at organized labor. The ad featured a large headshot of Fair, identified simply as “Civil Rights Leader for the last 40 years,” accompanied by the usual dire warnings about immigration’s negative impact on African Americans. (Snippet: “Black Americans have lost hundreds of thousands of jobs to foreign workers willing to work for next to nothing. And the hiring of low-skilled immigrants is responsible for 40 percent of the decline in employment among Black American men.”) Around that same time, Fair testified against immigration reform before a House subcommittee.

But perhaps BALA’s most colorful character is the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a one-time member of Choose Black America and the founder of BOND (The Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny), a nonprofit with the motto “Rebuilding the Family by Rebuilding the Man.” A harder-than-hard-core conservative and professional provocateur, Peterson is an equal-opportunity offender. Immigrants, in fact, arguably get softer treatment from him than do women and his fellow African-Americans. He has declared that giving women the vote is “one of the greatest mistakes America ever made” and claimed that “wherever woman reigns, evil is taking over.” Perhaps more notable still, he is forever decrying “black racism,” which he sees pretty much everywhere. His July 2 column for World Net Daily, for example, bore the headline, “Black racism killed Trayvon…and Paula Deen’s career.” Peterson has asserted that blacks should be put back “on the plantation so they would understand the ethic of working,” declared the NAACP to be “no different than the KKK,” and claimed that President Obama “hates white Americans—especially white men.” In short, if something is coming out of Peterson’s mouth, there’s a good chance it, at best, borders on hate speech.

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Asked whether she is concerned that the toxic talk that has emanated from some of her colleagues might muddy BALA’s message, Durant demurs: “I feel it’s important that everyone can have a voice in this issue.” People with divergent viewpoints, she contends, “only help enrich the discussion.”

Similarly, Durant declares herself unperturbed by the more controversial positions of her own past employer, FAIR. “I don’t really focus on the backgrounds or controversial statements about other issues,” she tells me. “For us, this really is a single issue we’re focusing on.”

Without question, the economic impact of immigration on African Americans is a pressing issue, one of great concern to many in the black community. But with a subject as inflammatory as this one, both the message and its messengers merit close scrutiny—regardless of skin color.