MORE THAN 400 ANTI-IMMIGRATION ACTIVISTS gathered in Las Vegas over Memorial Day weekend to bemoan President Bush's failure to close the borders. One described the United States as a nation at war every time a Mexican flag is planted on American soil." They celebrated their most recent success: a "border watch" in Arizona by fewer than 400 Minutemen vigilantes that had generated millions of dollars of free advertising. In the aftermath, Minutemen shops opened in Texas, Colorado, and Tennessee.
The two dozen speakers in Las Vegas reflected the breadth of a new movement still in birth: the parents of a dead September 11 firefighter, a police chief from New Hampshire, Pat Buchanan's vice-presidential running mate from his Reform Party bid in 2000, representatives of "immigration reform" organizations, a couple of talk-radio personalities, and several Republican Party activists (signaling the advent of immigration as the next big issue for the party's fight wing). On the auditorium floor, hardcore white nationalists mixed easily, distributing literature and engaging potential recruits, explicitly identifying nation with race.
California Coalition for Immigration Reform spokeswoman Barbara Coe told the assembly that undocumented workers were "illegal barbarians who are cutting off heads and appendages of blind, white, disabled gringos." Coe believes a widely held demographic conspiracy theory called the "Reconquista," a supposedly covert plan by Mexico to take back the lands of the Southwest. In 1994, the Los Angeles Times credited Coe with providing the organizational muscle behind a statewide anti-immigrant referendum known as Proposition 187. That measure, later found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, denied social and medical services to undocumented workers and their children. Outside the hall, along Desert Inn Road, a billboard sign read "Stop Immigration, Join the National Alliance," an imprecation to enlist in an avowedly national socialist sect known best for producing The Turner Diaries, the race-war terror novel carried by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
For this movement, the most important figure in main stream trappings is Representative Tom Tancredo, a Republican from Colorado's 6th District, who delivered the keynote speech to great applause. The chief of a congressional immigration-reform caucus that he organized, Tancredo is a ubiquitous presence at such rallies and meetings. For him, Proposition 187 was the "primal scream of the people of California," which he described as being under "political, economic, and cultural siege." Tancredo trades on his role as a Capitol Hill insider to enhance his standing in a far-flung movement. And in Congress his reputation far exceeds his backbencher status, precisely because of his standing among angry Middle Americans. In Las Vegas, Tancredo was alternately humble and proud, comic and serious. He distanced himself from President Bush with a quip about the Minutemen's border watch the previous April. "The same day the president was calling them vigilantes, I was in Arizona calling them heroes," he gloated.
As evidenced by events in Las Vegas, a single--but not seamless--web connects ideological white supremacists, armed border vigilantes, nativist think tanks, political action committees, and Republican Party officeholders in an anti-immigrant movement of growing significance. Formal policy deliberations may include debates on the fiscal costs of providing social services to undocumented workers, the supposed downward pressure immigrant labor exerts on the marketplace, the net costs and benefits of immigration, and the national-security problems evinced by holes in our borders. But at gatherings like these, the raw issues are race and national identity.
Differences between legal and illegal immigrants fade into a generalized belief that a brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking tidal wave is about to swamp the white-skinned population of the United States. …