Local news outlets at the U.S.-Mexico border frequently cite nativist anti-immigrant groups in reporting on immigration
Outlets in Arizona, California, and Texas have treated groups founded by eugenicist John Tanton as legitimate sources
Major news outlets in Arizona, California, and Texas are regularly citing nativist organizations founded by a white nationalist and eugenicist in their reporting on immigration, occasionally giving members of these organizations a platform to write commentary. These reports often present such groups as being in favor of merely “reducing overall immigration” or describe them as “restrictionist” without context or reference to their racist history, effectively laundering anti-immigrant talking points to local audiences.
The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), NumbersUSA, and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) are all extremist anti-immigrant organizations, and CIS and FAIR have been classified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. All three groups were founded by white nationalist and eugenicist John Tanton, who explicitly wanted to keep the U.S. a majority-white country through limiting immigration. Two years after Tanton’s death, the organizations he founded are still pushing his nativist vision, and the groups had a significant influence on former President Donald Trump’s nativist immigration agenda. CIS, FAIR, and NumbersUSA also regularly use local, national, and right-wing media outlets to launder extremist anti-immigrant talking points into reporting on immigration.
There is extensive documentation detailing these groups' nativist history. CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian has a history of lashing out at immigrants, and he closely collaborated with Trump administration official Stephen Miller, who has ties to white nationalism and is largely credited for Trump’s “racist and draconian immigration policies.” According to the SPLC, one of FAIR’s main goals is “upending the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended a decades-long, racist quota system that limited immigration mostly to northern Europeans” (FAIR President Dan Stein has called the act a “mistake”). And while NumbersUSA is typically regarded as a mainstream group, its President Roy Beck maintained a decadeslong relationship with Tanton and spoke at a meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group which has called Black people a “retrograde species of humanity.” Beck and Krikorian were both quoted as legitimate sources in both mainstream national outlets and local media within the last year.
Even though these groups have spent decades actively pushing racist, anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, outlets in states along the U.S.-Mexico border with large immigrant communities have largely failed to acknowledge their connections to white nationalism while continuing to cite them in recent articles. And by quoting these groups as legitimate experts on immigration, the news outlets are giving the words of nationally focused, explicitly anti-immigrant organizations the same weight as people who actually live and work in their respective states, including members of immigrant communities.
Here are examples of the outlets in Texas, Arizona, and California providing a platform to these Tanton-founded groups during the last year of the Trump administration and quoting their criticism of President Joe Biden's immigration policy.
Texas outlets have given a platform to CIS and FAIR to criticize Biden’s immigration policy without reference to the groups’ white nationalist ties.
- In the first week of the Biden administration, Floresville outlet Wilson County News published a January 26 op-ed from FAIR Executive Director Bob Dane. Dane’s article, “Suing Over ‘Surge’ Memo, Texas Fights Deportation Pause,” appeared to be a normal news piece with quotes from the Biden administration and Texas state government. A reader taking note of Dane’s fearmongering that new policies “could unleash a chaotic spillover at the border” would only be able to tell his affiliation by reading the disclosure at the bottom of the piece, which did not offer much context about FAIR’s history or goals. Dane also cited Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies for fellow Tanton organization CIS, as a legitimate source and did not disclose that CIS and FAIR share a founder or ideological goals.
- San Antonio CBS station KENS 5, which is owned by Tegna, aired a segment on January 19 featuring Todd Bensman, a senior national security fellow at CIS. The piece referred to Bensman as a journalist “who has covered border issues for decades,” even though he hasn’t worked in journalism for over a decade. The outlet did not disclose that after leaving journalism, Bensman worked as Department of Public Safety manager for the Texas Homeland Security Unit, but it did promote his new book in which he pushes the conspiracy theory that ISIS was trying to infiltrate the United States through the southern border -- a bogus claim that Bensman previously pushed from DPS all the way to the White House.
Other Texas outlets cited Tanton-affiliated groups FAIR and CIS throughout articles published during the Trump administration in 2020.
- The San Antonio Express-News published a syndicated column on December 2 from conservative National Review editor Rich Lowry, fearmongering about a “new immigrant crisis” under the upcoming Biden administration. Lowry cited a CIS analysis that claims the “immigration population” declined under the Trump administration and frames that dip as economically beneficial to the country, which is not true. The piece identified the virulently anti-immigrant group as merely “restrictionist,” and did not note its myriad connections to white nationalists.
- News4SA, a San Antonio-based NBC affiliate owned and operated by Sinclair Broadcast Group, published a November 2 article on “President Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden on border security.” The article cited CIS for figures on Trump’s record with undocumented immigrants, with no mention of the group’s background.
- KDFW 4, a Dallas-based Fox affiliate, published an article last January on the Trump administration’s plan to impose visa rules on pregnant women to reduce “birth tourism.” The article cited CIS on figures related to foreign-born women who gave birth in 2012, describing the nativist organization as merely “a group that advocates for stricter immigration laws.”
- In February 2020, the Houston Chronicle published a piece on a new immigrant defense fund proposed by local politician and Judge Lina Hidalgo, who is an immigrant herself. The article quoted FAIR spokesperson Ira Mehlman’s claims that the fund misallocates public resources without disclosing the organizations’ history of white nationalism. FAIR was the only dissenting voice mentioned in the article besides the two Republicans who voted against the initiative.
- The Houston Chronicle published a November 17 article about Texas immigrants anticipating the upcoming Biden administration and subsequent changes to immigration policy. The piece was largely focused on the perspective of immigrants until it cited Bensman and CIS, who claimed that Trump’s immigration policies were justified and said their reversal would serve “as another fantastic incentive for mass migration.” The Chronicle, again, did not explain the organization’s extreme views or history.
- Another Houston Chronicle article from August of last year about the Trump administration's unprecedented fee hikes for green cards and naturalization programs included a quote from CIS’ Vaughn, who claimed that the fee hike is “not an attack on immigrants, but an attack on fraud.” The piece did not disclose CIS’ connection to Tanton or its history of racism. Instead the paper called CIS a think tank that “advocates for tighter immigration restrictions."
Local media outlets in Arizona have already started to turn to Tanton-founded groups in their immigration reporting during the Biden administration:
- KVOA, a local NBC affiliate based in Tucson, quoted FAIR’s Mehlman in a January 29 article on Biden’s plan to stop some deportations for 100 days. No context was provided regarding FAIR’s stance or history, allowing Mehlman to freely distort the facts about Biden’s order: “It is going to be seen as an invitation by people all across the world.” He added, “You have criminal aliens, people I think we should all agree shouldn't be in the country, they're going to be allowed to remain." Mehlman also claimed that Biden “is yielding to [the] extreme wing of his party and going along with their demands to essentially declare open borders.”
- In a January 26 op-ed, The Arizona Republic cited Krikorian on how Biden “can win over Republicans to pass immigration reform.” CIS was described as an organization “that favors reducing overall immigration,” and the article boosted three “prerequisites” outlined by Krikorian regarding immigration reform, incuding “full cooperation between federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement.”
- The Arizona Republic also cited Jessica Vaughan of CIS in a January 21 article, which only mentioned CIS’ background as an explanation that the group “supported many of the Trump administration restrictive immigration policies.” Vaughan fearmongered that Biden’s deportation moratorium is too “lenient” and will protect criminals and gang members, arguing that it is tantamount to “giving free pass to many people who most definitely should be removed because of their crimes.”
Local Arizona outlets similarly boosted CIS, FAIR, and NumbersUSA as authoritative voices on immigration over the last year during the Trump administration.
- In April, 12News, a local NBC affiliate in Phoenix, quoted Ira Mehlman of FAIR, in an article on California providing undocumented immigrants with pandemic relief. Mehlman predictably opposed the efforts and commented: “They understood they were violating the law when they took jobs that they were ineligible for in the United States. … So, there has to be an element of personal responsibility here.” The piece described FAIR as a group “which favors restricting immigration,” but did not note its nativist history.
- In March, The Arizona Republic published an op-ed from Krikorian, who argued that the U.S. needs to keep “the labor market tight by not importing workers.” Krikorian concluded his op-ed by arguing that “importing more foreign workers — legally or illegally, as permanent immigrants or as temporary visa workers — would short-circuit these beneficial effects of a tight labor market.” The article provided no description for CIS or its background.
- The Arizona Republic published another article in April citing a blog post by NumbersUSA President Roy Beck, describing the organization is only as an “an immigration restrictionist group.” In the article, Beck urged the suspension of immigration due to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, “With tens of millions of Americans who want to work full-time unable to do so, most immigration at this moment makes no sense.”
Local media outlets in California have cited FAIR and CIS in reporting on immigration during the Biden administration:
- Sacramento-based KXTV ABC10 published a January 21 article on Biden’s plans for undocumented people brought to the United States as children, also known as “Dreamers.” The outlet cited Krikorian, who bashed Biden’s plans for “amnesty” and rejected the idea of a pathway to citizenship for those who arrived in the U.S. as teenagers because they haven’t been in the U.S. “from scratch.” The article described CIS as a Washington, D.C.-based conservative nonprofit, but did not mention its nativist history.
- A January 21 article from The Sacramento Bee on Biden’s immigration plans cited FAIR’s Dan Stein as a “D.C.-based group that seeks to reduce immigration.” Stein used COVID-19 to suggest that Biden’s immigration efforts would lead to competition for jobs between U.S. citizens and immigrants amid a pandemic.
- The San Francisco Chronicle published a January 20 article on Bay Area residents’ reaction to Biden’s immigration plan that quoted FAIR’s Mehlman, who claimed, “amnesty is not justified in any event” because “it doesn’t solve the problem. It just creates a new cycle of illegal immigration.” FAIR was described only as being a Washington-based organization, with no references to its anti-immigrant background.
- A local Los Angeles-based CBS affiliate, KCAL, quoted FAIR in a January 21 article as an opponent to Biden’s immigration proposal; there was no context provided for FAIR or Mehlman, who was quoted as saying Biden’s proposals were “ignoring the longstanding problems of our immigration system.”
Local California media’s decision to cite CIS, FAIR, or NumbersUSA in their immigration reporting and commentary occurred over the last year during the Trump administration as well:
- In February of 2020, The San Diego Union-Tribune published an article titled “Does the U.S. need more legal immigration?” The piece referenced a National Review editorial written by Krikorian, saying that the editorial argued “a tight labor market — without an increase in legal immigration — is best for workers." The article did not describe CIS or its history.
- An April 2020 piece from KTLA 5, a Los Angeles-based station, cited both an unnamed CIS spokesperson and FAIR’s Dan Stein in an article on fears that Trump would exploit the pandemic to limit legal immigration. The article quoted a letter Stein wrote to Trump encouraging him to limit green cards, with no context about the group he represents. CIS, described only as a “hardline group,” was cited for criticizing an exemption to the order “for foreigners who agree to invest at least $900,000 in the U.S.”
- In July, The San Diego Union-Tribune published a commentary piece from the president of San Diego State University’s College Republicans, who defended the organization's decision to circulate a letter signed by FAIR. Neither the author nor the publication disclosed FAIR’s connections to white nationalism.
- In August, The Sacramento Bee published an article on undocumented Californians potentially receiving a state tax credit under a newly proposed bill, citing FAIR’s Ira Mehlman. FAIR was described as a “nonprofit that seeks to end illegal immigration.” Mehlman was quoted as saying, “We should not be rewarding people who are here in violation of the law. … It is just going to make it more difficult for law-abiding, hardworking Californians who are just faced with all sorts of hardships at this time.”
- In an October piece in The San Diego Union-Tribune on statements made by former Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA), the paper noted his past work with FAIR, describing it as a nonprofit that “advocates against legal and illegal immigration” and quoting the organization’s mission statement from its website without context on its racist history.
The Los Angeles Times, though a larger national media outlet, is also an influential local outlet whose audience includes the vast Los Angeles immigrant community. The paper similarly cited Tanton-founded groups throughout its reporting in 2020:
- In a June article on Trump’s minimal border wall progress, Krikorian was cited as “an advocate for stricter enforcement of immigration laws,” with no context on the history behind CIS.
- Another June article on the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program cited the director of government relations for NumbersUSA, Rosemary Jenks. NumbersUSA was only described as an“anti-immigration group,” while Jenks was quoted as saying, “DACA was an illegal use of executive authority from the start. Clearly, an illegal policy must be reversed in order to restore the rule of law.”
- A July article on Trump’s attempts to restrict undocumented immigrants from being counted in the census cited FAIR’s Dan Stein as supporting Trump’s decision with no mention of his group’s history.
- Another July article on Trump’s immigration policy again cited Krikorian, describing him as “a leading immigration hawk with the Center for Immigration Studies.”
- In August, the paper cited Krikorian in a piece on coronavirus’ impact on Trump’s legacy as “a staunch restrictionist who heads the Center for Immigration Studies” -- again focusing more on identifying Kirkorian than providing context on CIS. Krikorian was described as crediting “Trump for doing more than any other president to reduce the influx of undocumented immigrants."
The media should not present CIS, FAIR, or NumbersUSA as a legitimate, good-faith voice of opposition to immigration proposals and policies -- and such groups certainly should not be presented without context of their connections to nativism and white nationalism, at a minimum. Local media outlets, especially those in the border states with large immigrant communities, do a disservice to their communities when citing anti-immigration groups founded by John Tanton without clearly communicating their racist history and hate-driven mission.