The timing must have seemed too good to be true. And in the end, it was.
On Tuesday, the same day the Federation for American Immigration Reform kicked off its annual "Feet to the Fire" media and lobbying event on Capitol Hill, the "Gang of Eight" released its bipartisan immigration reform package. The bill's arrival is the biggest event in immigration politics in half a decade, and FAIR's organized presence could only be seen as a fortuitous start to its plan to kill any bill containing a path to citizenship. But the landing of the legislation wasn't quite the national story FAIR expected, and neither was FAIR's event. On Wednesday, guns overshadowed immigration when the Senate voted down another high-profile bipartisan bill. Celebrating this front-page defeat was the National Rifle Association, whose outsized role in the gun debate FAIR imagines for itself in the immigration debate.
The comparison is flattering to FAIR, but like the group's ideas about immigration, it enjoys an ever-thinner margin of overlap with political reality. The NRA may be a punch line in much of the country, out of step with national opinion and internal membership polls, but the gun group still draws ritual genuflections from Republican presidential hopefuls, and its press conferences enjoy close media scrutiny. FAIR is more of a shadowy outlier.
Despite FAIR president Dan Stein's 2013 convention-program claim that "we could not be more relevant," the group is less relevant than ever. After three decades of advocating single-mindedly punitive immigration policies often dripping with racial bile, few elected officials above county sheriff risk public association with the scandal-plagued outfit, which the Southern Poverty Law Center designated a hate-group in 2007. Sen. Marco Rubio, possibly the biggest GOP star contending for 2016, reportedly plans to conduct radio interviews at the event, but he and FAIR stand so far apart on the issue of immigration that Politico has described his appearance at the event as walking "into the lion's den."
As the political ground shifts following November's election, the conservative media has begun to move with it, shifting away from the Nativism that flows naturally from Stein's view that the 1965 Immigration Act -- which ended the racial quotas of the 1920s -- was "a form of revengism" against "Anglo-Saxon dominance." Many of the most influential national right-wing talkers have "evolved" on immigration issues in the months since Barack Obama's reelection. So have powerful voices on Fox News, which appears to be moderating its style-guide on immigration lexicon in hopes of both reeducating the base and winning Latino viewers and voters. The new signals on the right doesn't mean Bill O'Reilly and his prime-time colleagues at Fox will ever be seen marching behind a La Raza banner, but they have stepped away from "no amnesty" absolutism. This shift hasn't escaped the notice of Rush Limbaugh, who has suggested he may be the last media lion standing on FAIR's side of the line.
That day hasn't come yet. FAIR-style rhetoric is still popular on talk radio and with some hosts on Fox. The result is conservative-media schizophrenia. The buzzwords of the new Republican Realism are often just one commercial break from the sounds of Tucker Carlson slandering immigrants as welfare-addicted gang members who harm American workers, Neil Cavuto casting undocumented immigrants as part of an "illegal invasion," and Brian Kilmeade joking about undocumented students using "night vision video" footage of themselves to win scholarships.
This post-2012 split was audible on radio row at the Park Phoenix, which FAIR sees as America's best and last line of defense against a path to citizenship.
Among the handful of "Feet to the Fire" broadcasters who break with FAIR on a path to citizenship is Mark Pfeifle, a part-time host and political messaging consultant who watched the last immigration reform fight from inside the second Bush administration. "I tend to be on the side of finding a way to solve this problem," Pfeifle told Media Matters. "There's a lot of heated rhetoric, and a majority of the radio hosts here probably endorse the FAIR position. But their positions vary. The hosts that live closer to the border have this issue more in their bloodstream. For the most part, the main goal of talk radio hosts is to hold an audience for two, three, four hours -- to keep listeners from clicking."
If the demographics of this year's "Feet to the Fire" is indicative of the media market for Brian Kilmeade's immigrant jokes, then Rupert Murdoch's advice to ignore nativists may be a simple business decision. The two-hundred-plus activists who filled FAIR's block of rooms at a Holiday Inn in Arlington were overwhelmingly white and on the shorter side of 50. There were a number of sheriffs, both from non border states like Oregon and Indiana, as well as Arizona, whose delegation was led by Joe Arpaio, the man known inside FAIR simply as "Sheriff Joe." Also gathered in D.C. was a klatch of ranchers in cowboy hats, including media favorite John Ladd.
Despite FAIR's billing of "Feet to the Fire" as a "media event" designed to advance a national discussion, FAIR did not court or welcome all participants. In the case of Media Matters, its representatives were barred outright. Media Matters' Ari Rabin-Havt had been asked to join host Lars Larson for a live interview on the convention floor, but the on-site appearance was cancelled when FAIR communications director Bob Dane got word of it. (Rabin-Havt later conducted the interview over the phone.) Rabin-Havt, a frequent guest of Larson's show, had given his name and affiliation at the registration desk when a woman saw his nametag and asked, "What are you doing here?" A few minutes later, Dane came storming up and leaned into Rabin-Havt's face. "I can't think of one reason in heaven's name why I should let you in here," he hissed. He ripped the conference program from Rabin-Havt's hands and pointed at the exit. "Out, right now," he said. "I'm sick of the dishonesty. I'm sick of the lies!"
One of these alleged untruths had apparently been bothering Dane above the rest. "Howie Carr," he yelled, "is not here!"
If announcing the Boston talker's presence in D.C. qualified as a lie -- Media Matters had reported it that morning -- it was a lie hatched from FAIR's own program, which listed Carr as broadcasting from the second floor of the Park Phoenix Hotel on Wednesday between three and seven p.m.
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Dane's bizarre explosion aside, FAIR doesn't fear journalists for failing to stay on top of convention programming changes. The group is warier of media than most because of their ability to break and spread stories like FAIR's hiring of a field organizer whose anti-immigrant group failed to "disassociate itself from the neo-Nazi skinheads who often joined its rallies." FAIR's veneer of mainstream credibility has been damaged not just by the nastiness at the core of its message, but by investigations into FAIR founder John Tanton's fondness for eugenics and willingness to take money from racial science outfits like the Pioneer Fund, "a foundation that promoted theories of the genetic superiority of whites."
As its alliance with talk radio begins to crumble, these kinds of stories pose a greater and possibly existential risk to FAIR, which after 30 years is now squarely in sight of the historical footnote it was always destined to become.