A purported debate between conservative pundit Ann Coulter and the Daily Caller's Mickey Kaus at the Conservative Political Action Committee highlighted the ugly rhetoric conservative media have used to discuss immigration and showed how far right conservative media have shifted compared to a Republican Party that has maintained that immigration reform is necessary and important.
In what was billed as a "debate" between a liberal and a conservative on the last day of CPAC, Coulter sat down with Kaus to discuss various issues but ended up talking mainly about immigration reform or as they call it, "amnesty." After repeating the debunked claim that President Obama was selectively enforcing immigration laws, Coulter and Kaus, both well-known opponents of immigration reform, launched into an attack on reform that touched on many of the conservative media's favorite discredited myths, including:
Interspersed within these myths was language that has found favor among nativist and anti-immigrant fringe groups such as the term "anchor baby," a derogatory phrase for the American children of undocumented immigrants.
At one point, Kaus stated that immigration reform represented "the triumph of ethnic politics over economic politics." Coulter for her part bizarrely accused immigrants of trashing national parks while arguing for stigmatizing illegal border crossers and unwed mothers:
COULTER: Now at all these national parks in California where the littering is coming from recent immigrants -- oh, we can't suggest any one group is doing it. Let's just shut the park. And that's what they're doing. This is always the solution now. We don't want to stigmatize anyone. No sometimes stigma is good. They've stigmatized smoking out of existence, how about stigmatizing unwed motherhood, littering, running across the border illegally. How about stigmatizing it? Can we just do that?
She also complained about the "browning of America" and claimed that "if you don't celebrate it, you're a racist." She concluded the discussion by threatening Republicans who support reform with "death squads."
As Right Wing Watch reported, during another event before her discussion at CPAC, Coulter likened the country's changing demographics to being raped because "demographics are changing by force."
Coulter and Kaus' rhetoric on immigration is typical of what passes for discourse on the issue in right-wing media circles. Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham has been especially inflammatory, routinely using racially tinged speech while talking about immigrants. Conservative radio host Mark Levin has accused undocumented students of lowering U.S. education rankings and has said that reform represents the "suicide of the nation." Rush Limbaugh has used talking points from nativist groups to argue against immigration reform. Fox News has traded on fears of undocumented immigrants to advance absurd claims, including that photo ID cards will allow them to vote (even though legal and undocumented immigrants constitutionally cannot) and that allowing undocumented immigrants to drive legally with a state-issued driver's license will endanger American lives.
Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham claimed that undocumented immigrants under the Obama administration's deferred action program would have access to health care benefits under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In fact, DACA recipients are ineligible to apply for subsidized health insurance.
During a town hall event with Spanish-language media on March 6, President Obama allayed fears within the immigrant community that information gathered about undocumented immigrant family members while signing up for health care would not be used for deportation enforcement. In the process, he stated that only U.S. citizens and those with "legal presence" would be able to apply for subsidized health care, noting that "it's true that the undocumented are not eligible -- that's how the law was written."
On her radio show, Ingraham distorted Obama's comments, claiming that "legal presence" applied to "anyone that he decides to defer immigration action on." She added: "The DREAMers can get Obamacare."
In fact, as the New York Times reported in September 2012, undocumented immigrants with lawful presence under DACA are not eligible for subsidized health care:
The White House has ruled that young immigrants who will be allowed to stay in the United States as part of a new federal policy will not be eligible for health insurance coverage under President Obama's health care overhaul.
The decision -- disclosed last month, to little notice -- has infuriated many advocates for Hispanic Americans and immigrants. They say the restrictions are at odds with Mr. Obama's recent praise of the young immigrants.
In June, the president announced that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, attended school here and met other requirements would be allowed to remain in the country without fear of deportation.
Immigrants granted such relief would ordinarily meet the definition of "lawfully present" residents, making them eligible for government subsidies to buy private insurance, a central part of the new health care law. But the administration issued a rule in late August that specifically excluded the young immigrants from the definition of "lawfully present."
At the same time, in a letter to state health officials, the administration said that young immigrants granted a reprieve from deportation "shall not be eligible" for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program. Administration officials said they viewed the immigration initiative and health coverage as separate matters.
Thanks to a 1995 California law however, about 73,000 DACA recipients who are 21 and under are reportedly eligible for the state-funded Medi-Cal program, which is completely separate from the ACA's Medicaid program.
National Review Online contributor Mark Krikorian claimed that liberals and Democrats are engaged in a "strategy" through immigration to increase the size of government programs. He stated that Democratic support of immigration reform is a way to "import voters" and "exacerbate social problems," namely poverty and the lack of health insurance, to make it more palatable for Americans to support big government programs like the health care law.
Krikorian floated his new conspiracy theory during an address to the National Security Action Conference's "Uninvited II," an event hosted by Breitbart News on the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that featured many speakers who "were not invited to CPAC."
As highlighted by the Right Wing Watch blog, Krikorian stated that the Democrats and the left have promoted immigration "for explicitly political purposes," including as "a way of importing voters." He continued:
KRIKORIAN: Not just that, but also, they create the conditions such as increased poverty, increased lack of health insurance that lead even non-immigrant voters to be more receptive to big government solutions because liberals will often say, look at the size of the uninsured, we have to have a solution to this.
One third of all the people without health insurance are in immigrant households, 80 percent of the growth in the uninsured population over the past decade is driven by immigration.
So the fact is that the left is not just importing voters, but they're trying to create -- they're successfully exacerbating social problems through immigration that they then point to as the reason for big government solutions, and are listened to more openly. The solutions seem more plausible to just ordinary middle of the road voters precisely because those social problems have been made worse by immigration.
Krikorian added: "The left doesn't say that they have made these problems worse through their own policies but that is part of their strategy."
Breitbart News also highlighted Krikorian's comments.
Krikorian, the executive director of the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies is often quoted in the media as an expert on immigration issues, despite his group's anti-immigrant nativist designation and its penchant for pushing false or misleading information about immigrants.
A Fox News-endorsed executive order issued by Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer that bars young undocumented immigrants with lawful presence from obtaining driver's licenses from the state has also made it harder for American citizens moving to Arizona to obtain driver's licenses. Fox personalities repeatedly defended and praised the measure, arguing that granting these licenses would potentially lead to terrorist attacks.
In June 2012, the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which exempted eligible undocumented immigrants under 31 from deportation on a renewable two-year period. Those who qualify are eligible to obtain work permits and Social Security cards. Though they do not have legal status, they are considered to be lawfully present in the United States under the program.
In August 2012, Brewer issued an executive order barring these immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses and photo IDs, claiming that state law barred Arizona from making these immigrants eligible for such state benefits.
While Brewer's order did indeed prevent DACA recipients in Arizona from qualifying for driver's licenses, a recent investigation conducted by the Arizona Republic found that it "also made it more difficult for people relocating to Arizona to get licenses by making them produce a passport, birth certificate or other document proving they are in the U.S. legally."
Describing the case of how Arizona refused to grant a new driver's license to a Kansas resident unless he could prove he was lawfully in the country, the Republic reported:
Before Brewer's order, new residents could use out-of-state driver's licenses as primary identification to get a license in Arizona.
That's because, like Arizona, most other states require applicants to prove that their presence in the U.S. is authorized in order to get a license.
But after the order, state transportation officials were forced to stop accepting out-of-state licenses as primary identification because most other states are allowing deferred-action recipients to get driver's licenses.
Documents obtained by The Arizona Republic through a public-records request show that state transportation officials had to scramble to create new identification requirements, which also made it more difficult for people relocating to Arizona to get licenses by making them produce a passport, birth certificate or other document proving they are in the U.S. legally, the documents show.
In Arizona, out-of-state licenses now are acceptable only as secondary documents.
To get a license, residents must show a primary identification that establishes legal presence and secondary identification that helps prove their identity.
Only "enhanced" driver's licenses remain acceptable as primary identification, but only five states issue them: New York, Michigan, Vermont, Washington and Minnesota, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and media reports. Enhanced licenses are issued only to U.S. citizens. As a result, residents relocating from other states without enhanced licenses have had to use other forms of identification.
The article further noted that, according to the state's Motor Vehicle Division, "each month, about 12,000 new residents attempt to use out-of-state driver's licenses to get Arizona licenses."
Brewer's order is now being challenged on behalf of DACA recipients by a number of civil and immigrants' rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, saying the order is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Fox News distorted comments by Democratic congressional candidate Alex Sink about the need for immigration reform, completely misinterpreting the meaning of her remarks to cast them as outrageous and beyond the pale. In fact, as the Miami Herald noted, Republican lawmakers have made similar comments in the past without the hint of the conservative outrage Sink's comments have received. Moreover, the comments broadcast by Fox were not Sink's full remarks on the topic.
During a candidate forum in Florida hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, Sink addressed the need for immigration reform by stressing the fact that coastal communities rely heavily on immigrant labor and that without reform, employers are put "in a position of hiring undocumented and illegal workers":
SINK: Immigration reform is important in our country. It's one of the main agenda items of the beaches' Chamber Of Commerce for obvious reasons. Because we have a lot of employers over on the beaches that rely upon workers, and especially in this high-growth environment, where are you going to get people to work to clean our hotel rooms or do our landscaping? And we don't need to put those employers in a position of hiring undocumented and illegal workers.
Discussing those comments on Fox & Friends, guest host Clayton Morris twisted the meaning of those words, claiming what Sink really said was "we need immigration reform so we can have illegal immigrants doing landscaping and cleaning hotels." Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck added: "Because what would we do without that, she's saying." Morris continued: "How would our hotels be cleaned?"
Co-host Brian Kilmeade also stated: "She was winning by 2 points prior to those remarks. I don't know if this is going to send her numbers south."
In fact, Sink was making the opposite point: We need immigration reform so that employers, particularly those in high-growth areas like coastal communities, don't resort to hiring unauthorized labor. For a network that has been stridently opposed to immigration reform because of the impact such labor has on the workforce, Sink's comments should have been greeted favorably.
Two Fox anchors are not buying the latest Republican argument against passing immigration reform, further defining a Republican Party civil war over the issue that is pitting Fox News personalities against one another.
Following House Speaker John Boehner's comments that "the main obstacle for moving forward" on immigration reform "is a lack of trust in President Obama," a number of Fox News commentators used the opportunity to validate that Republican talking point and continue conservative opposition to immigration reform.
Fox News' Bill Hemmer seized on Boehner's argument to push the false claim that Obama's historically low number of executive orders constitutes a "presidential record" high. Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer agreed that "the Republicans are absolutely right" to delay on immigration and "to say that if you cannot trust the president to carry out the law faithfully ... how do you expect him to carry out faithfully a law in which he's gonna have to compromise on enforcement?"
Fox News co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle also agreed, asking on The Five: "Why am I going to go ahead and reward you if I'm the American people or the senators, anybody else, and say, 'Go ahead and do immigration'?" She added: "I, quite frankly, haven't been shown that you've been able to do a good job on any of these other things that preceded. You haven't fixed Obamacare. More jobs are going to be lost. So why are we going to just shove through immigration quickly, without support, and then have another big mess for the American people?"
By contrast, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly dismissed the Republican talking point as flawed.
On Fox News Sunday, Wallace stated: "I think it's fair to say that President Obama's trustworthiness, or lack of same, didn't really change dramatically in the last week. I mean, isn't the real issue here that Republicans in the House and in the Senate are deeply divided on immigration reform and they didn't want to expose that division in the middle of an election year?"
Now that the Republican Party has settled on a set of principles to guide its action on immigration reform, media outlets have turned to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as a credible source on immigration reform, validating his arguments that reform will slow U.S. economic recovery and further depress Americans' wages. These talking points, however, have been repeatedly discredited as experts agree that immigration reform would have a positive impact on the economy and Americans' wages.
As The Washington Post reported, Republican leaders released a list of "principles" on immigration reform, declaring that "there would be 'no special path' to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but that, in general, they should be allowed to 'live legally and without fear' in the United States if they meet a list of tough requirements and rules." The statement concluded that "none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced."
In reporting on the debate, media are validating Sessions' bogus economic arguments against reform. Discussing the issue on Fox News, for example, contributor Tucker Carlson highlighted Sessions' arguments, saying that Sessions is "no liberal and is not either some kind of fiery demagogue populist" and that "he's making an intellectual case against more immigration in a down economy."
CBS News similarly highlighted an "analysis" by Sessions, reporting that it "said increasing the number of immigrants would hurt an already weak economy, lower wages and increase unemployment. He cited White House adviser Gene Sperling's comment earlier this month that the economy has three people looking for every job opening." The article continued:
He said the House Republican leaders' plan that's taking shape would grant work permits almost immediately to those here illegally, giving them a chance to compete with unemployed Americans for any job. He said it would lead to a surge in the future flow of unskilled workers and would provide amnesty to a larger number of immigrants in the country illegally, giving them a chance to apply for citizenship through green cards.
Politico also quoted Sessions' criticism that the GOP proposal "provides the initial grant of amnesty before enforcement; it would surge the already unprecedented level of legal lesser-skilled immigration to the U.S. that is reducing wages and increasing unemployment; and it would offer eventual citizenship to a large number of illegal immigrants and visa overstays."
In fact, Sessions' arguments are actually repackaged talking points from anti-immigrant groups and, as the libertarian Cato Institute noted, "are based on misinterpretations of government reports, cherry-picked findings by organizations that engage in statistical chicanery, or just flat-out incorrect." Cato, which released a point-by-point rebuttal of many of Sessions' claims, added that his assertions "do not advance a logical argument against immigration."
Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham revived the nativist myth that "fanatic" supporters of immigration reform, which she identified as the National Council of La Raza, are motivated by "Reconquista" -- a movement that believes Mexico has a right to reclaim land it lost in the southwestern United States. She played on those fears, that immigrants will overrun the United States, to support her contention that English "is in decline" and is "actually a sign of jingoism."
On her radio show, after a caller stated that immigrants "have learned to game the system" and that there are parts of Colorado she cannot go into because she doesn't speak Spanish, Ingraham replied:
INGRAHAM: No, your language is gone. Your language -- in fact, your language is not only in decline, the English language, Chris, it's actually a sign of jingoism. Because remember the La Raza is all about -- the movement underneath La Raza, which defines the race - right, translates as "The Race" -- is: This is our land. You took our land. We're coming to take it back.
That's what the fanatics really think. That's not what Paul Ryan thinks, but that's what those people think. And Nancy Pelosi and La Raza are licking their chops about this immigration reform.
Conservative media figures have repeatedly attacked the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) to discredit the immigration reform movement and have tried to smear the group as racially motivated. NCLR, which has been lauded as "one of the nation's most respected Latino organizations," previously refuted several of the most inaccurate claims, including the fact that translating "La Raza" to mean "the race" is "factually incorrect."
Republican strategists admitted to BuzzFeed that a "loud minority" of voices that includes conservative media have helped hinder congressional action on immigration reform. Strategists and lawmakers maintain that this "small cadre of Republicans in the House, talk radio hosts and activists," use the "perceived threat of xenophobia" to drive opposition to reform and make House Republicans leery of the issue.
Indeed, right-wing media figures have repeatedly used racially tinged language to stoke fears of immigrants and force lawmakers to obstruct immigration reform. In fact, the front page of the Drudge Report this morning provides the perfect example:
Drudge linked to a column by conservative pundit Ann Coulter, a frequent guest on Fox News, who wrote that the Republicans' planned push for immigration reform will "wreck the country" and "solves" only "the rich's 'servant problem.' "
Another example is Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham, who on her radio show today played on nativist fears of immigrants to raise opposition to immigration reform.
In a January 29 article, BuzzFeed reported:
[A]lthough there are a variety of reasons for inaction, one Republican lawmaker recently offered a frank acknowledgement for many members, there's one issue at play not often discussed: race.
"Part of it, I think -- and I hate to say this, because these are my people -- but I hate to say it, but it's racial," said the Southern Republican lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "If you go to town halls people say things like, 'These people have different cultural customs than we do.' And that's code for race."
There are a range of policy reasons for opposing plans to liberalize immigration or to regularize undocumented immigrants in the country, ones revolving around law-and-order concerns and the labor market. But that perceived thread of xenophobia, occasionally expressed bluntly on the fringes of the Republican Party and on the talk radio airwaves, has driven many Hispanic voters away from a Republican leadership that courts them avidly. And some Republicans who back an immigration overhaul, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and one of the Republican Party's most vocal champions of a pathway to citizenship, acknowledge that race remains a reality in the immigration debate.
BuzzFeed went on to report: "Talk radio, particularly regional and small-market talkers, have also kept up the pressure, Republicans said, explaining that the airwaves back home are constantly filled with talk of 'amnesty' that makes backing new laws difficult." The article quoted Republican strategist Brian Walsh saying that Republicans are " 'listening to a loud minority ... [but] those who oppose this haven't been challenged to say, 'What's their plan?'"