Meet the Grover Norquist of the immigration debate

Updated
Number USA founder Roy Beck
Number USA founder Roy Beck
courtesy Roy Beck

Since Hispanics turned out in record numbers to help re-elect President Barack Obama, Washington has been filled with optimistic talk that Republicans will finally moderate their stance on immigration, making comprehensive reform possible.

But just as the GOP’s anti-tax enforcers are making it hard to come up with a compromise on how to avoid the fiscal cliff, so too is the party’s hard-line anti-immigration faction likely to stand in the way of any deal to fix our broken immigration system.

That means it’s worth getting to know the Grover Norquist of the anti-immigration lobby.

Roy Beck may not have a pledge, but he does have Numbers USA—an influential lobbying and grassroots group with 1.3 million members, which focuses on limiting and reducing the numbers of immigrants in the country.

Beck’s group flexed its muscles during lobbying over a Republican-backed immigration bill that passed the House Friday, which would create visas for foreigners with math and science degrees from American universities, while eliminating the Diversity Visa Program, a lottery that randomly awards visas to applicants from countries that send the fewest immigrants to America, and whose beneficiaries tend to be poorer and less educated.

Since Democrats control the Senate, the bill almost certainly will go no further. But the debate over the measure made clear that Numbers USA has emerged as a powerful force on immigration—stronger, bigger, and more influential than when it was credited with stopping in its tracks President George W. Bush’s push for immigration reform back in 2007.

Beck downplays his influence, but nonetheless says he doesn’t think the bill would have passed if Numbers USA had opposed it“Everybody who was trying to get this bill through wanted to figure out a way that we would not oppose this bill,” he told msnbc.com shortly after the vote.

Democrats agree. On the House floor, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Il., chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, singled Numbers USA out for its influence on the process.

“I’m going to tell you why you [Republicans] wouldn’t negotiate with us. Because you had to negotiate with Numbers USA,” Gutierrez said. “Why don’t we just say it? They’re the party that’s not present here in the well of the House, but they are here in the spirit and in the legislative policy that is being reiterated today. You can’t negotiate with us [Democrats] because you have to negotiate with the most extreme element of American society on immigration.”

It’s happened before. Back in 2007, when Bush pushed an immigration bill, Numbers USA supporters flooded congressional fax machines and phones with letters and calls. The New York Times credited the group with halting the bill. “And we only had 350,000 members then,” Beck says proudly.

“The fax machines would run out of paper,” one Republican House staffer recalled of that effort. “They have a hold, an influence. Most of what they do is try and scare members.”

So what does Beck want? He’d cap immigration levels at 500,000 legal immigrants a year, around half the current level. According to his plan, the majority of immigrants will marry or be adopted by Americans while a few highly skilled workers and special needs refugees will round out the numbers.

“This would be a radical downshift in the number of immigrants,” said Heidi Beirich, the intelligence project director at the Southern Poverty Law Center who has studied Numbers USA for a decade. “But what he’s really angling to get to is the numbers before 1965—around 200,000 immigrants a year, which is essentially just a replacement number, a zeroed out number.”

Some immigrants-rights supporters point to ties between Numbers USA and far-right nativist fringe groups. Beck founded Numbers USA in 1998 as a faction of U.S. Inc. A 2011 New York Times exposé of U.S. Inc.’s founder, John Tanton, credited him with structuring and creating the anti-immigration movement by nurturing Numbers USA and founding Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which some have labeled a hate group, as well as the Center for Immigration Studies.

Today, Beck describes Tanton, who once warned of a “Latin onslaught,” with admiration, but denies that race plays a role in the group’s work. “Nothing that I’ve ever said or done or that Numbers USA has said or done agrees with [Tanton’s radical views]” he said. He says the group rejects racism and immigrant bashing.

Beirich isn’t convinced. “On immigration, Beck’s views are exactly in line with Tanton’s” she said. Beirich also notes that Tanton employed Beck for a decade, and says Tanton paid Beck regular speaking fees long after the two group’s formal separation. “If it has nothing to do with race, how come you’re always hanging out with racists?” she asks. “How come you won’t deny these people?”

Aaron Flanagan, a researcher who studies Numbers USA for the Center for New Community, an organization that seeks to fight organized racism in politics, agrees. ”Numbers USA is packaging and codifying pretty hardcore doctrine of nativism for mass digestion,” Flanagan said.

Numbers USA’s success is in its simplicity: The group blames many everyday hardships on immigrants, and paints numbers, not people, as the solution.

“There are 11 million immigrants forcing 7 million Americans out of work,” he told msnbc.com.

Flanagan called that argument “illogical.” “There isn’t a one to one job displacement. But for Numbers USA, there is,” he said.

But there’s no disputing the group’s methods are successful.

Numbers USA works closely with House members in crafting immigration legislation. Beck says the group emails, and phones legislators to discuss bills regularly. Regular email blasts request member action—sometimes two and three times a week, Beck says.

“I rely on Numbers USA whenever there’s an immigration-related bill in the House,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., a member of the House’s conservative Immigration Reform Caucus. ”I like to get their input and their opinion on pending legislation, and I like to hear what they have to say about immigration-related bills and amendments I’m considering offering.”

Numbers USA’s grassroots work may be more about intensity than, well, numbers. The Republican staffer noted that when he read through those faxes in 2007, he found that the actual number of Numbers USA-supporting constituents were small. But they were unusually active, signing their names to protest letters on each and every bill that touched on immigration.

“It’s the same names—we call them frequent flyers—it makes them seem like there are more than they are,” he said.

Beck says this battle for immigration will be no different than previous fights.

“We are doing what we always do, which is to communicate with members of Congress when it looks like they’re starting to slide more into the loose labor way of thinking,” Beck said. “It’s not impossible to have some kind of amnesty, [if it] has offsets in future Green Cards and enforcement triggers, but there’s nothing we’ve ever seen that we can support.”

Those professions of moderation are what’s most striking about Beck and Numbers USA—and what Beirich and Flanagan say makes them so dangerous.

“When you have a big racist like Tanton, most people immediately recoil, but with this placid presentation … they’re going to assume that it’s legitimate,” Beirich said. “You have to spend some time digging and looking if you’re going to figure out that Beck at one point went on vacation with Tanton to visit a top eugenicist.”

Does Beck see similarities with Norquist’s role on taxes?

“In terms of style, there are some similarities between us, but he asked people to sign a pledge—that’s airtight,” Beck said. “We are not that way. There are sometimes reasons for compromise.”

“And you know,” Beck said with a small laugh. “Grover Norquist is an open borders kind of guy.”

Meet the Grover Norquist of the immigration debate

Updated