Sealing Off The Borders

Sealing Off the Borders
Anti-Immigration Groups Gear Up for Action

By Matthew Murray
Roll Call (Washington, DC), March 23, 2009 Monday [Subscription]

With Democrats hinting that the nation's immigration laws could be in play, radio talk show hosts and anti-amnesty groups are preparing for a repeat of their grass-roots lobbying effort of two years ago, a campaign that clogged Congressional switchboards and ultimately doomed legislation that attempted to account for the roughly 12 million undocumented workers in the United States.

And they're promising lawmakers that they ain't seen nothing yet.

'It will be three times as big. Now it's a national issue because everywhere there's issues involving illegals and the kinds of problems that have occurred as a result,' said Roger Hedgecock, a talk-radio host at San Diego's KOGO-AM 600. 'During the recession, it will [be] much more emotional because this administration will be [giving] American jobs to people who broke into the country.'

Hedgecock – along with a loose coalition including CNN broadcaster Lou Dobbs and two leading anti-immigration advocacy groups, NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform – is again prepping to unleash millions of phone calls, faxes and e-mails on Capitol Hill should lawmakers begin debating immigration-related legislation not to their liking.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested last week that overhauls could be on the horizon, while President Barack Obama discussed immigration with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus – two events that provided an opportunity for NumbersUSA to prepare its fax servers.

The nonpartisan organization, which says on its Web site that its mission is to 'influence Congress to turn away from policies forcing a more and more congested and regimented future for our country, our children and our grandchildren,' said that by week's end, it expected its member-activated grass-roots lobbying tool would send 400,000 faxes to policymakers.

Roy Beck, NumbersUSA's executive director, said his group has the e-mail addresses of 1.6 million individuals, 900,000 of whom are regular users of the group's proprietary online software, which allows them to electronically communicate their disapproval of immigration legislation to Senators and House Members.

The organization also has a team of contract lobbyists led by its government relations head, Rosemary Jenks.

Unlike many other advocacy groups, NumbersUSA 'skipped the entire direct mail thing,' Beck said, deciding instead to launch a Web-based system when the group started in 1996. The decision, Beck added, has proved to be both the group's biggest asset and its biggest liability.

'When we started in 1996 there were no online programs, so we invented our own,' he said. 'Our system is entirely customized; it's all in-house [but] it's very expensive.'

Beck also said that the lackluster economy may force the anti-immigration lobby to lean even harder this time on the proven combination of broadcasters and advocacy groups, since dwindling coffers may mean a pricey advertising campaign is out of the question.

'There were three major amnesty votes in 2007 and we beat all of them [with] very little advertising,' he said. 'We were leveraging grass-roots power through the Internet and talk radio, and that's what we'll do again this year.'

Julie Kirchner, of FAIR, said one of the group's biggest obstacles this go-round will be dissecting complicated policy issues into bullet points that the group's members can use to bum rush the Capitol steps – electronically speaking, of course.

'If they're going to put everything into one package, one of the great challenges is taking the legislation and really boiling it down into concepts that people will understand,' she said. 'People need to really understand what Congress is voting on … more than ever before they are really engaged in what's going on.'

While NumbersUSA is expected to mobilize the grass roots online – and Hedgecock, Dobbs and others the airwaves – Kirchner said one of her group's primary responsibilities will be using Web-based video to hold Members accountable when talking out of both sides of their mouths.

'What we've found is that Members will go to one group and say one thing and go to another group and say a different set of things,' she said. 'Or they'll use vague language to provide as much wiggle room as possible.'

'In the days of YouTube, there's plenty of material to work with,' she added. 'This stuff always has a way of coming to the surface.'

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who is organizing a multi-city tour to promote immigration overhauls, said the pro-reform lobby, too, is gearing up for a fight, acknowledging that the other side is 'very well-organized and very well-funded.'

The Windy City lawmaker – who has sparred with Dobbs on his cable show – said his side is also taking to the public airwaves and cable shows, leaning on Hispanic networks like Univision that draw huge audiences in New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

'Get on a Hispanic radio station, watch Univision any night and see what the priorities are of the newscast – it's immigration,' Gutierrez. 'I'm sure there are some astute people at Univision that have done their studies about what their viewers care about.'