For weeks now, anti-immigrant groups have been hyping a “National Day of Protesting Against Immigration Reform, Amnesty & Border Surge,” meant to be two days of protests in cities across the country in reaction to the Central American children who are coming to the southern border to flee violence in their home countries.
The protests were a bust. Local news reports and pictures posted on social media show anemic turnout, from about 40 people in front of the United Nations in New York to just three at a McClellan, Texas, border control station who wondered if they had gotten the wrong address.
These small but vitriolic protests, although they didn’t meet the hype of their organizers, tell us everything we need to know about today’s anti-immigrant movement.
1. It’s driven by extremists.
This weekend’s protests were organized by three fringe groups: Make Them Listen, Overpasses for America, and Americans for Legal Immigration PAC.
Make Them Listen is run by activist Paul Arnold, who has close ties to the anti-immigrant front group behind last summer’s rally of extremists on the National Mall .
Overpasses for America is a group led by activist James Neighbors that organizes demonstrations over highway overpasses to call for President Obama’s impeachment. The group went a step further this year when it backed Operation American Spring, an effort meant to flood Washington with protesters and force Obama out of office , which also came up slightly short of expectations .
Overpasses frequently shares images like this on its Facebook page:
The group also uses the platform to share its views on immigrants, including this image and its accompanying caption.
Americans for Legal Immigration is a one-man anti-immigrant hate shop run by North Carolina-based activist William Gheen. Gheen has said that “illegal and violent” means might be necessary to remove President Obama from office and has a long record of virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric . Gheen’s last national action was encouraging his supporters to mail used underwear to undocumented immigrants.
Gheen also has ties to the right-wing militia movement: he personally invited the anti-government group Oath Keepers to join the weekend’s protests.
Other groups listed as “participating organizations” in the event included 2 Million Bikers To DC, whose leader wants to repeal all but the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and which deals in racist Facebook images, and Americans Have Had Enough Coalition, which is led by white supremacist Roan Garcia-Quintana .
The largest recent anti-immigrant protests — the attempts to turn back busses of migrant children in Murrieta, California, and Oracle, Arizona — were also populated by anti-government fringe groups. The Murrieta protest, which was organized by activists tied to the Minutemen and the John Birch Society, drew some of the same people who had recently set up shop at the anti-government standoff at the Bundy Ranch.
2. It relies on xenophobia.
Signs and chants at this weekend’s protests show that the movement draws its energy from Nativism and xenophobia.
A number of signs at the events drew from the ginned-up fears of migrant children carrying diseases. In New York, one protester parodied Emma Lazarus, shouting, “bring us your smallpox, bring us your malaria, your scabies.”
Another woman in New York held a sign calling “illegals” and President Obama “cockroaches.”
At the Raleigh event, attended by Gheen himself, protesters in front of the Mexican consulate held a large sign reading “No Way Jose.”
A protester in Texas held a sign saying, “We are a nation of immigrants, not a nation of welfare .”
Another protester in Florida wrote a sign that read, “Send Them Back with Birth Control.”
3. The fringe and the “mainstream” are closely knit.
The weekend’s protests were organized by fringe extremists, but they were promoted by large national groups that have access and influence in national politics.
The largest anti-immigrant organizing groups, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Numbers USA quietly promoted the events: Numbers sent a notice about the events to its email list and a number of FAIR’s state affiliates directed members to events in their areas.
Prominent GOP-tied activists also promoted the events. The American Family Association’s Sandy Rios urged listeners of her radio show to attend events in their area and advertised the protest on Facebook. The Right’s favorite "constitutional scholar" Mark Levin also advertised the rallies on Facebook.
Rep. Steve King, the leading anti-immigrant voice in Congress, was spoke at a sparsely attended protest in Nebraska, telling his audience that the migrant children at the border represent an “invasion” the size of “Santa Ana’s army.”
4. The movement’s running on fumes.
The small turnout at the weekend’s rallies highlights the truth that the anti-immigrant movement is desperately trying to hide: it just doesn’t have that much support.
Reports from cities across the country show just small handfuls of people showing up to yell about the child migrants to passing cars.
About 12 people turned up on an overpass in Milwaukee. A similar number gathered in Oklahoma City and Placentia, California. An event in Dover, Delaware, seems to have attracted about twenty. About eight appear to have made it out to hang an “Obama Sucks” banner on an overpass in Chattanooga. Three people turned up on an overpass in Oregon. San Diego mustered 25 people. A small group of protesters in Columbus, Ohio, were disappointed that so few people had showed up. About 15 people made it to the parking lot of the Mexican consulate in Little Rock; consulate officials and local police assured local news that they weren’t too concerned about needing additional security.
Meanwhile, Think Progress reporters in McClellan, Texas, ran into a group of three anti-immigrant demonstrators who wondered if they had gotten the wrong address for the protest. They were drowned out by the more than 60 people rallying in support of the refugee children at the border.
The protests this weekend were an attempt to create the illusion of widespread outrage at the children coming to the southern border and at the concept of immigration reform. A number of the protest groups, however small, garnered local news coverage and were able to say that they were part of a large nationwide effort. A look at reports from across the country shows that that was not the case.
The anti-immigrant movement, for all its smoke and mirrors, consists of a small network of closely tied advocacy groups who rely on fringe extremists like Gheen and Neighbors to rally scant amounts of grassroots support.
5. The GOP is still listening.
The anti-immigrant movement may be smoke and mirrors, but it has some very influential people fooled. House Speaker John Boehner still refuses to bring immigration reform up for a vote in the House. Ted Cruz now says that deporting DREAMers is his “top priority.” Republicans in Congress, spooked by the victory of ALIPAC-supported David Brat in Virginia, say that immigration reform is dead — even though an overwhelming percentage of Republicans want Congress to take action to fix the immigration system and a majority of Republicans want that to include a path to citizenship or permanent residency for undocumented immigrants.
The child refugee crisis has brought out the true colors of the anti-immigrant movement. Even as some conservative groups are urging compassion and care for the children fleeing to the southern border, Republican leaders seem to be buying the narrative of the small, Nativist anti-immigrant fringe.