Two hard-line opponents of illegal immigration have obtained high-level advisory jobs at federal immigration agencies in the Department of Homeland Security.
Jon Feere, a former legal policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies, or CIS, has been hired as an adviser to Thomas D. Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan.
At Customs and Border Protection, Julie Kirchner, the former executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, has been hired as an adviser to Customs and Border Protection acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, said Lapan.
The hiring of Feere and Kirchner at the federal agencies has alarmed immigrants’ rights activists.
CIS and FAIR are think tanks based in Washington that advocate restricting legal and illegal immigration. The two organizations were founded by John Tanton, a retired Michigan ophthalmologist who has openly embraced eugenics, the science of improving the genetic quality of the human population by encouraging selective breeding and at times, advocating for the sterilization of genetically undesirable groups.
Dan Stein, president of FAIR, noted in a 2011 New York Times article that Tanton did not hold a leadership role in the organization any more and was no longer on the board of directors. He is still listed as belonging to FAIR’s national board of advisors.
New aides and their connections
Kirchner worked as executive director of FAIR from October 2005 to August 2015. She then joined the Donald Trump presidential campaign as an immigration adviser before being appointed to Customs and Border Protection.
While at CIS, Feere promoted legislation to end automatic citizenship for US-born children of undocumented immigrants. He argued that bearing a child on US soil provides an immigrant access to welfare and other social benefits, which has spurred a rise in what he calls “birth tourism,” the practice of foreigners traveling to the United States to give birth to add a US citizen to the family.
The nonpartisan fact-checking website Politifact has mostly debunked those claims, concluding that US-born children do little in the long term to help their immigrant parents. Citizen children cannot sponsor their parents for citizenship until the young person turns 21 and any social benefits would be given to the child and not their undocumented parents, who would not qualify. The Pew Research Center also has found that the number of babies born to unauthorized immigrants in the United States has been declining steadily in recent years.
Feere also has been a strong critic of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program enacted by President Barack Obama via executive action that has granted protection from deportation to young immigrants brought to the country as children.
In one article published by CIS, Feere questioned whether children brought to the United States at an early age were sufficiently assimilated or loyal to this nation to be granted any type of legal status.
In a 2013 interview with The Washington Post, Mark Krikorian, executive director of CIS, worried about growing “multiculturalism” and contended that a “lot of immigration pushers don’t like America the way it is” and want to change it.
Stein, the president of FAIR, defended in a 1997 interview with the Wall Street Journal his belief that certain immigrant groups are engaged in “competitive breeding” to diminish America’s white majority.
“CIS has published articles that labeled immigrants ‘third world gold diggers’ and that blamed Central American asylum seekers for the ‘burgeoning street gang problem’ in the US, while Dan Stein has said that many immigrants that come to the US hate America and everything the country stands for,” said Heidi Beirich, director of Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which oversees the center’s yearly count of anti-immigrant groups. “We take these designations very seriously, and CIS and FAIR are far-right fringe groups that regularly publish racist, xenophobic material and spread misinformation about immigrants and immigration.”
Throughout the presidential campaign and since he’s taken office, Donald Trump’s immigration policy has mirrored details found in CIS reports. In April 2016, for example, CIS published a list of “79 immigration actions that the next president can take.” The list included such measures as withholding federal funds from sanctuary cities, eliminating the “Priority Enforcement Program,” which prioritized the deportation of the most serious criminals during the Obama administration, and reducing the number of welfare-dependent immigrants living in the United States.
Many of these recommendations have already been enacted, proposed or discussed by the administration, and some were included in Trump’s executive order on immigration issued in January.
ICE makes some changes under Trump
“The campaign and the administration have used other material of ours so I’m delighted that they are using that immigration actions list,” Krikorian said. “But there’s a difference between using CIS’ material as source of important research and CIS actually having a direct operational link to the administration.”
Krikorian declined to comment on Feere’s job at ICE.
Feere, Kirchner, acting ICE Director Homan and acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner McAleenan declined requests for interviews.
Kirchner and Feere’s advisory roles at Customs and Border Protection and ICE have rattled some immigrants’ rights advocates, who say they are concerned by the newfound power and influence far-right nativist groups have gained within the government since Trump came into office.
“These groups have spent 20 years looking for ways that they could hurt immigrants and now they’ve been given the keys to the kingdom,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigrant advocacy group based in Washington whose goal is to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Some pro-immigrant advocates already sense a growing breakdown in their ability to effectively get information from ICE.
“There is this general, very harsh sense within the nonprofit advocacy community that we are being entirely shut out on everything from engagement on policy all the way to individual immigrant cases, and just very basic information that ICE should be transparent about, like how many detention centers are currently in operation around the country,” said a representative from a pro-immigrant organization who, along with some other colleagues, requested anonymity in order to speak freely.
ICE adds groups to stakeholder meetings
This marks what some say is a drastic change in the relationship between ICE and pro-immigrant advocacy organizations. During the Bush administration, a coalition of pro-immigrant groups known as the ICE-NGO Working Group started holding confidential, closed-door stakeholder meetings several times a year with high-ranking immigration officials as an opportunity to express concerns and ask specific questions about enforcement policy, the rights of immigrants and their treatment while in detention.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association, the American Bar Association’s Immigrant Justice Project and the National Immigrant Justice Center are among the advocacy organizations that make up the ICE-NGO Working Group.
In February, at the first such get-together under the Trump administration, members of the working group felt blindsided to discover that some anti-immigrant, pro-enforcement groups also were in attendance.
In addition to CIS and FAIR, invitations were extended to the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which is the legal arm of FAIR, NumbersUSA and Judicial Watch. These groups support stricter enforcement of immigration laws, reducing overall immigration levels and the increased detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants.
“We are frustrated and angry that what felt like a productive conversation and an exchange of ideas and information about how to ensure the safe and fair treatment of immigrants in their (ICE) custody has morphed into a meeting with organizations whose mission is to restrict immigration and perpetuate hate against immigrants,” said one pro-immigrant advocate who attended the February meeting.
Pro-enforcement, pro-immigrant groups debate
Leaders of the pro-enforcement organizations argue, however, that as clear stakeholders in the immigration debate they have every right to be at the ICE meetings.
“We were intentionally excluded from the meetings under the Obama administration, but with the new management, ICE invited some other groups, too, and it’s long overdue,” said Krikorian, who acknowledged he does not remember being invited to these meetings under the Bush administration, when the sessions started.
Pro-immigrant advocates have told ICE they would prefer if the agency met with those groups separately, which ICE has declined to do. Some advocates said they don’t take issue with people who have opposite views on immigration, but believe these groups have consistently spread verifiably false information to demonize the immigrant community and its allies.
“There’s obvious fear in the community because of the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from this administration, but having Jon Feere, who came from CIS, in a leadership position at ICE and now these anti-immigrant groups showing up at stakeholder meetings for the first time in 14 years, it has also created this really deep-seated fear in the advocacy community,” said an immigrants’ rights activist who teared up recalling how one advocate felt she could no longer participate for fear of exposing herself to ICE.
“Many immigrants’ rights advocates are immigrants themselves, some are DACA recipients, and they are now afraid to even show up at the stakeholder meetings because they may be taken into custody while at ICE headquarters. These are smart, professional, well-educated advocates that are now scared to do their jobs,” said the activist.
As a result, immigrants’ rights organizations have since notified ICE that they have dissolved the ICE-NGO Working Group and will no longer participate in the quarterly gatherings.
ICE will keep meetings going
In a statement ICE said the meetings will continue:
“ICE is committed to transparency with all interested stakeholders – not just those of one opinion on immigration enforcement issues and policies. ICE appreciates constructive and diverse viewpoints from a wide spectrum of organizations interested in immigration enforcement. The agency continues to expand engagement with stakeholders and community members. Our goal is to make sure all members of the public fully understand what we do and what we don’t do.”
Peter Robbio a spokesman for NumbersUSA, a group that also scored its first invitation to the stakeholder meeting, described this as the best relationship the organization has had with any administration in 21 years.
Said FAIR’s Stein: “President Trump understands the immigration issue from the larger view of the national interest and has tapped a strong bench of people who bring expertise on the issue – some who are in the administration, some who are not.”
If pro-immigrant groups are unhappy about that, said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, they better get used to the new reality.
“I’m sure these left-wing groups are used to being able to control the debate and control the room, and I’m sure they would love to be able to continue to do that, even during the Trump administration,” Fitton said.
The pro-enforcement groups are enjoying the unprecedented input to shape immigration policy and hope to continue attending the stakeholder meetings with ICE.
“We should be encouraging more of these meetings,” Fitton said. “I know the liberal left is afraid to confront the arguments of their opponents and want to be able to talk to the government without anyone holding them to account, but we are not opposed to participating in them with the other groups.”
Not quite, says the other side.
“This isn’t exactly the same situation as having Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, both in the same room,” countered one pro-immigrant advocate. “The fundamental difference is that their agenda is driven by a nativist white supremacist approach to policy. So, to sit together in a room, not only does it have a chilling effect, but I think that many of the advocacy organizations, including ours, fear that we would be normalizing the nativist agenda as it gets into the halls of our government.”
This article has been updated to clarify the affiliations of the Department of Homeland Security employees mentioned in the piece.