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 Anti-Immigrant Hate Groups Have Spent Millions on Digital Ads. They’re Indistinguishable from GOP Candidates’ Ads

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*Warning, the article below describes racist and xenophobic content.  

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigrant hate group, has spent nearly two million dollars pushing nativist myths through ads on Facebook and Twitter. FAIR and their allies have been peddling their brand of xenophobia for decades, but their message has recently been amplified through close ties to the Trump Administration and an increasing number of Republican candidates and superPACs whose ads echo this hate group. FAIR’s ads are troubling in their own right, but the widespread adoption of their dehumanizing rhetoric in electoral campaigns should ring alarm bells.

FAIR was founded in 1979 by a white nationalist named John Tanton, whose racist ideas have been a matter of public record since the 1980s. His early financial backers, like the Pioneer Fund, believed in eugenics and white racial superiority. Two of Tanton’s friends are prominent white nationalists Jared Taylor and Peter Brimelow, who run the white nationalist websites American Renaissance and VDARE, respectively. In 1994, Tanton also co-authored a book titled “The Immigrant Invasion”, which is, of course, rhetoric adopted by the anti-immigrant movement and politicians including Donald Trump. Similar language was invoked by extremists like the El Paso gunman.

After setting up FAIR, Tanton went on to build a network of other anti-immigrant organizations and hate groups that shared funders and supported each other’s work. This nativist lobby includes organizations like NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies, another hate group that consistently distributes material from white nationalist websites. It also includes smaller, single-issue organizations like ProEnglish and local organizations like Californians for Population Stabilization and Oregonians for Immigration Reform.  

The nativist lobby’s ads

In total, the Tanton network of anti-immigrant organizations has spent some $2.015 million on Facebook ads since May 2018 — when Facebook began tracking and publishing data on political ad spending. Additionally, they have also spent an unknown amount on Twitter and TV ads.

FAIR alone has spent some $991,000 on Facebook ads and another $951,000 on Twitter ads. The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has spent significantly less on Facebook ads, spending only $5,000 since May 2018. They do, however, run paid promotions on Twitter nearly every day. Twitter does not publish the amount CIS has spent or keep an archive of their ads because CIS is not a verified account. NumbersUSA has spent some $980,000 on Facebook and made three separate TV ad buys in 2019. ProEnglish has spent some $12,000 on Facebook. The local groups run ads as well, with Californians for Population Stabilization spending $20,000 on Facebook ads and Oregonians for Immigration Reform spending $7,000.

Their ads demonize immigrants as violent criminals and job stealers, and trade in other dangerous and harmful myths. The ads also link back to websites that are full of xenophobia, junk data, and connections to white nationalism. 

Despite the fact that there is no relationship between immigrants and crime, FAIR and CIS run ads fear-mongering against immigrants as harbingers of violence. For example, FAIR ran a Facebook ad that read “Illegal Immigration Is Not A Victimless Crime”, while CIS ran an ad on Twitter that read, “the fact is that every criminal alien who can be removed from the US is one fewer criminal who can commit an offense.” 

This nativist lobby also pushes the harmful myth that immigrants steal jobs from native-born workers and are bad for the economy. But the opposite is true. The U.S. Labor Department under George W. Bush said the idea that immigrants take jobs from native-born workers was “the most persistent fallacy about immigration in popular thought”. As an economist at the University of California, Davis, puts it, “Most economists agree that in spite of being a very big part of the labor force, immigrants have not come at the cost either of American jobs, nor of American wages”. Another report from Cornell found that immigrants have no long-term negative effect on the wages or employment of native-born workers. Experts have said that one of the best ways to improve the economy would be to turbo-charge immigration

But these anti-immigrant groups are spending real money to keep propagating their myths. For example, one CIS ad on Twitter in October read, “Locals are not pleased to have to compete for employment with the Honduran migrants.” Last year FAIR ran an extensive ad campaign with the false slogan, “for wages to rise immigration must fall.” And NumbersUSA ran an ad on TV throughout the summer of 2019 that blamed stagnating wages on undocumented immigrants. They ran the same ad on CNN during the Democratic debate on October 15, 2019.  

NumbersUSA and FAIR also ran ads targeting members of Congress over a vote to grant protections for Dreamers and TPS recipients. NumbersUSA’s ad called on Congress to “VOTE NO on H.R.6 Because it Grants Amnesty to 4 Million ILLEGAL Aliens & Costs Taxpayers 34 BILLION Dollars”. In fact, the immigrant families that would be affected by this law “contribute $17.4 billion in federal taxes and $9.7 billion in state and local taxes; they hold $75.4 billion in spending power,” according to a study by the University of South Carolina. The loss of protections for these immigrants would only hurt the economy. Following the vote, FAIR targeted members of Congress with ads on Twitter that read, “Why did @RepOHalleran vote to give amnesty to MILLIONS of illegal aliens at the height of a massive border crisis!?”  

Want to dive deeper into to the prevailing immigration myths? Check our explainer video debunking the five most common immigration myths.


FAIR and the GOP have a strikingly similar message

Messaging from hate groups like FAIR and CIS is being reflected in virtually identical ads from Republican candidates across the country. During the 2018 midterms, the GOP fully adopted the xenophobic dog whistle strategy pioneered by the nativist lobby. The same pattern has emerged in 2019. The ads from the Tanton network and GOP candidates in both cycles share striking similarities.  

A recurring theme for both the nativist lobby and Republican candidates involves fear-mongering against so-called “sanctuary cities”. Far from the lawless zones they are depicted as, ‘sanctuary cities‘ are generally just jurisdictions that treat undocumented immigrants like all other Americans — detaining immigrants when they have committed crimes, but not just because they are undocumented.

However, FAIR runs ads that read, “Sanctuary cities threaten public safety and promote lawless behavior. It’s time for Congress to #EndSanctuaryCities and uphold the rule of law.” Similarly, an ad from CIS reads, “Five illegal immigrants have been arrested on rape charges in Montgomery County, Maryland in the last few weeks. These cases expose the dangers of sanctuary policies”. 

Many GOP candidates and PACs used this same dangerous and false message. For example, a Congressional Leadership Fund ad in Wisconsin’s first district shows a white woman before cutting to a menacing hooded figure walking down a sidewalk brandishing a knife. The woman says, “[Democratic House candidate Randy] Bryce supports sanctuary cities providing safe haven to violent illegal immigrants.” Or take an ad from Louisiana from September of this year, where Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone talked about “ROBBERY ASSAULT MURDER” and attacked his opponent for creating “A SANCTUARY CITY MECCA”. 

FAIR, Republican candidates, and conservative PACs also use victims of tragic accidents to gin up fears about immigrants in order to call for sweeping changes that target the immigrant population as a whole. FAIR ran a Twitter ad with a video of a mother talking about a car accident involving an undocumented immigrant. Californians for Population Stabilization ran a similar ad on Facebook around the election in 2018, featuring a father who blamed sanctuary cities for the tragic death of his son, saying, “sanctuary means more illegal immigration, more crime, and more gangs.” 

Putting Kentucky First, a super PAC supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin, ran an ad in September 2019, featuring a man whose brother tragically died due to an opioid overdose. But the ad blames immigrants for his death. The ads says, “illegal immigration is making the opioid crisis worse … refusing to ban sanctuary cities that protect drug dealers. [Democrat] Andy Beshear is a risk we can’t take.” In 2018, Republican John Chrin, who was running for Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, ran an ad that invoked a horrific rape in Philadelphia. The ad then blamed the tragedy on sanctuary cites and his opponent’s support for a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. 

The closing argument during the 2018 midterms involved intense fear-mongering around the migrant caravan, which was in the news at the time. This push included an ad from Donald Trump that was too racist for most news outlets to air, including Fox News. But numerous other PACs and candidates ran similar ads. The Congressional Leadership Fund was one of these groups, running ads with an ominous voice-over that said “over seven thousand strong, the caravan is full of gang members and criminals. Who is tough enough to secure our border?” NumbersUSA similarly ran dozens of Facebook ads at the same time with links to find polling places above an image of the migrant caravan with text that read, “Who will STOP the caravans?”

Maybe the least surprising is the fact that the nativist lobby and GOP candidates and PACs have all been running ads in support of Trump’s wasteful and unnecessary border wall

As new anti-immigrant messaging emerges this year, the nativist lobby and the GOP are again in sync on their messages. After the first Democratic Presidential debate in 2019, Donald Trump started running ads that said: “DEMOCRATS SUPPORT GIVING ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS FREE HEALTHCARE AT OUR EXPENSE”. Similarly, in the North Carolina special election for U.S. House District 9, Republican Dan Bishop ran an ad that attacked his opponent for being supported by “Democrats who are pushing free healthcare for illegals.” CIS advertised for days on Twitter about their “panel discussion on the cost of granting healthcare benefits for illegal immigrants.” 

The striking similarity of the ads should be concerning, but not surprising since the Trump Administration’s immigration policies have basically been fulfilling the wish lists of the nativist lobby. Furthermore, dozens of individuals with deep connections to the network of anti-immigrant groups have weaseled their way onto the Trump Administration staff, some at the highest level. We see this in ads as well: CIS ran Twitter ads featuring the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, who has long ties to the anti-immigrant lobby. In another example, NumbersUSA ran a Facebook ad trying to land longtime FAIR associate and anti-immigrant zealot Kris Kobach, the nomination to head of the Department of Homeland Security.

All these connections, as well as the similarity in the ad content between hate groups and the GOP, should be concerning. Words matter, and anti-immigrant dehumanization can have tragic consequences.