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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Even before President Obama entered the East Room of the White House to give his speech outlining a series of executive actions on immigration reform, some, though not all, national Tea Party factions were whipping up their followers into a nativist frenzy.

“This is by far the most serious communication I have ever sent,” wrote Steve Eichler, executive director of the 1776 Tea Party (aka TeaParty.org), in an email to supporters.  “Everything is at stake. Illegals will bankrupt our social, economic and financial systems. Terrorists will just blow it all to pieces. They’ll all be in our backyards in a matter of weeks, even days, if we don’t step up and demand action,” he warned.

That type of feverish nativism is no surprise coming from Eichler, who is also the executive director of the anti-immigrant vigilante group, the Minuteman Project. His email went on to predict “open rebellion” and “chaos” if Republicans don’t withhold funding for Obama’s executive order.

Echoing Eichler’s terror hysteria was one of the activists who helped shape the early Tea Party movement. Eric Odom, who now works for the Patriot Action Network, a Tea Party faction, also put forward the notion that executive action on immigration would somehow lead to terrorists destroying America.

What makes it so dangerous is that Obama’s announcement says to all of our enemies that now is the time to invade our nation’s borders. We’re no longer talking about innocent women and children riding trains to our borders then crossing with the hopes of gaining access to our welfare system. We’re talking about ISIS and other evil groups who want to embed individuals here with the plan of doing harm.Essentially, our President just made a proclamation that puts American lives, and the security of our nation, directly at risk. Obama said to the world that if they can get across our borders, we will not send them home. We will not enforce our immigration laws.

Grassfire, parent outfit of the Patriot Action Network, added “With his amnesty announcement in just a few hours, Obama will unilaterally defy the will of the people and Congress –becoming a threat to liberty.”

Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation went even further in denouncing President Obama, arguing that the immigration actions were part of a diabolical plot. In a prebuttal to Obama’s speech, Phillips told Tea Party Nation members, “Today, Barack Obama is going to announce his long-cherished goal of destroying America.”

Phillips, a birther racist and advocate of limiting voting to property owners, isn’t new to nativist extremism. In 2011, his group mourned the falling birth rate of native-born Americans, and warned that “American culture” will soon perish since the “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) population is headed for extinction.”

Eichler, Odom, and Phillips weren’t the only Tea Partiers to adopt an inflammatory pose. Echoing their sentiments was Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a favorite among Tea Party nativists, who warned portentously that President Obama’s executive actions and general “lawlessness” on immigration could lead to “ethnic cleansing.”

Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) also joined the fray, contending that President Obama’s immigration executive order is “declaring war on the American people and our democracy.”

“This is truly an emergency. There’s not a moment to lose,” wrote Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin to her group’s members last Wednesday. While other Tea Party groups are busy inflaming nativism sentiment, the Tea Party Patriots are crafting a plan to scuttle any immigration reforms.

Having already primed their members with the October release of the gruesome anti-immigrant video, The Border States of America, Tea Party Patriots are focused now on organizing opposition.

As a first step, they plan to “melt the phones to stop amnesty” by having their members contact Congress en masse to register opposition. The next step is to flood congressional offices with protesters. According to Martin, the group “must deploy our thousands of local affiliates to congressional offices all across the country, demanding that they cut off all funding from this order immediately.” But the Tea Party Patriots do not have the “thousands of local affiliates” as Martin claims; instead they have around 300 remaining active local groups.

They plan to deploy those remaining local groups, however, to pressure the new Congress to defund anything relating to immigration reform. Kevin Broughton, a spokesperson for Tea Party Patriots, noted, “We expect [the new GOP majority] to use the power of the purse to defund amnesty, especially those—and there were many—who ran against it.”

The group is also canvassing its membership base to gauge possible attendance for a noon rally on December 3 in Washington D.C. called by the founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, retiring congresswoman Michele Bachmann. The decision to possibly join Rep. Bachmann’s rally came after she declared on Wednesday that executive action on immigration will lead to a flood of “illiterate” voters.

Previous Tea Party Patriots anti-immigration rallies in Washington D.C., such as the muddled Immigration/IRS rally on June 19, 2013 on Capitol Hill have not been well attended, so larger attendance at a December rally would be an indicator of some success for efforts to promote nativism without one of the largest Tea Party factions.

Not all national Tea Party factions are in agreement with the Tea Party Patriots’ plan. Obama’s move on immigration has uncovered a growing fissure within the Tea Party movement over the centrality of nativism. Curiously, while Tea Party Patriots, Patriot Action Network, and the 1776 Tea Party were rushing to sound more and more xenophobic  (and fundraising off the issue), some Tea Party factions tried to dance around the immigration issue, while others stayed conspicuously silent.

Indeed, although many members of the FreedomWorks social network were outraged by the president’s announcement last week, the organization’s leadership chose to duck the issue. FreedomWorks completely sidestepped the topic of immigration, choosing instead to concentrate the organization’s message on tried-and-true Obama bashing.  In a pre-speech press release, FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe took a page from the GOP establishment playbook, sticking to the line about the president being an “emperor” and railing against the “expansion of executive power.”

Said Kibbe, “The president’s announcements tonight have nothing to do with immigration. This fight has to do with whether or not we are a country with laws and a separation of powers designed to protect the will of the American people from the arbitrary actions of Washington insiders.”

As other Tea Party groups have dug in for a massive fight around immigration, FreedomWorks appears fixated on getting Congress to let the Export-Import Bank expire. In fact, many in the Tea Party movement have been suspicious of FreedomWorks because of their unwillingness to wholeheartedly embrace nativism.

Unlike all the other factions, Tea Party Express hasn’t uttered a peep about the issue. That could be because the group is hoping not to call attention to the pro-immigration reform stance that Sal Russo, a Tea Party Express co-founder, expressed in an article for Roll Call last spring.

Russo’s commentary, titled “Conservatives Need to Fix the Broken U.S. Immigration System,” called for an approach remarkably similar to that proposed by the president. “We need to make the 11 million people who are here illegally obey the law, pay taxes and come out of the shadows. We have to get them right by the law in exchange for legal status, but not unbridled amnesty,” he wrote.

In the past, these disagreements have caused strains between various organizations in the network that comprises the Tea Party movement. Obama’s executive order is the first major test of these policy differences in years, and Tea Party organizations may well be held to account for their positions.

Expect the caution initially evident among Republican leadership to vanish if the Tea Party successfully mobilizes anti-immigrant sentiment. Given the vitriolic nativist tone already circulating in Tea Party circles, and the fusion of nativism with hatred of the first African-American president, the coming mobilization could make the ugly rancor and racism that erupted during the passage of Obamacare look polite. At the same time, if supporters of human rights stand strong for immigration reform and actively combat nativism, it could protect immigration reform gains for the long term and even split the Tea Party.

For more on the origins of Tea Party nativism, see the 2012 IREHR special report, Beyond FAIR: The Decline of the Anti-Immigrant Establishment and the Rise of Tea Party Nativism.

Screenshot: C-SPAN (via IREHR)

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