Illegal Immigration Foes See Opportunity After Wilson’s Outburst

September 16, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Signs at Tuesday's Feet to the Fire event (Photo by David Weigel) Signs at Tuesday's Hold Their Feet to the Fire event (Photo by David Weigel)

This is the second year Alex Segura has trekked from Utah to Washington to lobby for stricter immigration laws. It isn’t getting easier with practice.

“It’s worse than ever,” Segura told TWI. He was in the Phoenix Park Hotel, across from Union Station and a short walk from Capitol Hill, where he and around 200 other allies of the Federation for American Immigration Reform were about to go meet with their senators and members of Congress. “You’ll collar one of them at a Tea Party — that’s how I got to [Sen.] Orrin Hatch [R-Utah] — and they’ll tell you they agree with you. Then they get back here and do a 180.”

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Segura had won some real victories last year. The Utah branch of the Minutemen Project, which he founded, hit the pavement to campaign against Chris Cannon, a congressman from one of the nation’s safest Republican districts who bucked his party leadership and often opposed strict measures against undocumented immigrants. Cannon was ousted by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a telegenic, Twitter-crazed conservative who hasn’t satisfied Segura at all: “He hasn’t done anything on immigration.”

For fourteen years, FAIR has sponsored a mass lobbying campaign they call Hold Their Feet to the Fire. According to FAIR spokesman Ira Mehlman , this year’s event, coming days after the 9/12 “taxpayer march on Washington,” was the biggest yet, and several participants interviewed by TWI had come for the march and stayed in town to lobby Congress. For no fee, activists could walk the narrow rooms and halls of the hotel and meet local talk show hosts stationed at “radio rows.” Boston’s Howie Carr and San Diego’s Rodger Hedgecock held court; CNN’s Lou Dobbs appeared at 3 p.m. to host his radio show, shaking hands and posing for photos at every station break.

This year’s campaign came at a precipitous time. According to the immigration restrictionists at Hold Their Feet to the Fire, the battle to stop illegal immigrants from wrecking America’s health care system had been joined again. Many credited Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) outburst during President Obama’s speech before Congress last week with focusing the country’s attention on illegal immigration, in preparation for what they expected to come in 2010 — the third full-out battle over immigration reform in the last five years.

“Joe Wilson got a lot of people talking about the health care legislation in the context of illegal immigration,” Dobbs told TWI after smiling for a snapshot with Bill Landes, a Florida activist wearing a Minuteman Project button. “I think he deserves great credit. There hasn’t been a backlash — quite the opposite.”

On the Hill, where Democrats were readying to vote on a resolution condemning Wilson, which ultimately passed, this was greeted as a fantasy. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a freshman from a safe blue district with a sizable Hispanic population, appeared at a prayer vigil organized by pro-immigration groups and blasted FAIR as an “obscure and extreme.”

“The people who are lobbying here today make no distinction between documented and undocumented,” said Polis, who said he became aware of FAIR thanks to the “bizarre” faxes they sent to his office. “This is about bigotry on one side and humanity on the other.” After the vigil, Polis told TWI that Wilson’s outburst had caused a “backlash,” and “provided momentum for comprehensive immigration reform” as well as making Democrats’ work a little easier on health care.

Not surprisingly, the politicians at the Phoenix Park Hotel disagreed. “Wilson said what was on the mind of a lot of Americans,” said Lou Barletta, the mayor of Hazelton, Pa., who won national fame for tough laws he passed penalizing undocumented immigrants for using city services. “The procedures, the decorum — I understand. But he brought this issue to the point where they needed to address it, because it wasn’t being addressed. We have to talk about the fraud and abuse in this system. I mean, we arrest people with four or five fraudulent Social Security cards.”

Barletta, who narrowly lost a bid for Congress last year (“President Obama carried the district by 15 points, and I lost by three”), said that he campaigned against universal health care then by asking voters what would happen if potential border-crossers knew they could get free health care in the United States. “It’s obvious what would happen,” said Barletta. “It would be a total breakdown of our health care system — and not only our health care system, it would break down every other system.”

Current Republican members of Congress talked about the immigration issue the same way. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) told TWI that current laws made it impossible for hospitals to deny emergency care to illegal immigrants, and current interpretation of the 14th amendment, which granted citizenship to babies born in the United States, opened the door to coverage of illegal immigrants in any “government takeover” of health care.

“My solution,” said Gohmert, “is that once they have gotten the free treatment, if they are here illegally, then they will be deported. It is a matter of national security that we not allow anyone to bankrupt this country.”

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who stopped by FAIR’s event to do radio interviews, disagreed with Gohmert’s idea. “I don’t think we should deport people,” said Culberson, “but we should follow the law and verify their citizenship status.”

Culberson brushed aside the suggestion that a new focus on immigration as a wedge in the health care debate would backfire on Republicans. But some activists who’d traveled to D.C. for 9/12 rallies and in-person lobbying felt that Republican worries about the politics of immigration would prevent them from doing anything about it at all.

“They think it’s a toxic issue,” said Julie Dunston, a Florida activist who also attended FAIR’s event in 2008. “When they hear you’re asking about immigration, they freeze up.”

“You look at them and you notice they’re not taking notes,” grumbled Sivert Wallstrom, a fellow activist from Florida. “You’ve got pregnant women who walk over the border, and 24 hours later they have babies who become American citizens.”

One candidate hoping to score an upset victory for immigration restriction didn’t think immigration would play any larger a role in the health care debate than it had played so far. “The health care bill will pass or fail before I get to the Senate,” said Chris Simcox , the co-founder of the Minutemen Civil Defense Force, who is challenging Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in next year’s Arizona Republican primary. “The problems, the fraud, all of those are already present in Medicare and Medicaid, and that’s what I talk about.”

As the first full day of lobbying closed — there would be more tomorrow — activists made evening plans and decided whether or not to attend the “We The People Immigration Reform Awards,” held at the U.S. Postal Museum across the street. “The People’s VOICE” award would go to Glenn Beck.

“The ‘We the People Awards’ celebrates those whose efforts have demonstrated exceptional service to the immigration reform movement,” read FAIR’s listing for the honors. “We applaud their dedication and commitment through leadership and representation.”

Beck didn’t attend the dinner, appearing instead via a pre-recorded message in which he thanked the activists and joked that he had to get back to “scaring the crap out of Americans.” It was left to Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) to praise Wilson.

“It looks like the Senate is going to fix the language in the health care bill,” said King, “to require proof of citizenship… amnesty in the health care bill has gone down because of who? Joe Wilson!”