More than two decades ago, during the 2000 election, leading anti-immigrant group Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) offered a glimpse of things to come. Amid his reelection campaign, FAIR targeted U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI), chair of a Senate subcommittee on immigration, in a $700,000 radio and television ad campaign described by The New York Times as “among the nastiest running anywhere this political season.” Among Republicans, Abraham was considered reliably conservative, supporting business-friendly tax and regulatory policies and the abolition of the Department of Energy. He was also a one-term senator of Lebanese descent who resisted the anti-immigrant movement’s calls for drastic reductions in authorized immigration. FAIR’s ads in Michigan juxtaposed Abraham’s face with that of Osama bin Laden—who, in the days before 9/11, was best known for leading attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000—asking why the senator was “trying to make it easier for terrorists like Osama bin Laden to export their way of terror to any street in America?”
The ads were rightfully denounced by community groups across Michigan, and at least one local Fox affiliate stopped running it. But ultimately, Abraham lost. Blatant fear-mongering ads weren’t the only reason for his defeat, but they illustrated the dark lengths the anti-immigrant movement was willing to go, even 21 years ago, in pursuing its agenda of draconian immigration restriction. After the September 11 attacks the following year, FAIR’s message—suspicion of Muslims, drastic immigration cuts under the guise of national security—gained further resonance on the Right and became one of the defining characteristics of U.S. politics over the next two decades.
September 11 drastically changed political culture, clearing the way for more overtly discriminatory rhetoric and policies. The so-called War on Terror was launched, killing and terrorizing millions over the next two decades; U.S. Muslims (and those perceived to be Muslim) faced heightened abuse from the state and civilians alike; and a new bureaucratic colossus known as the Department of Homeland Security emerged, bolstering domestic surveillance and detention efforts against both immigrants and native-born citizens. Many of these policies—and the political rhetoric that supported them—were influenced by FAIR and the network of other anti-immigrant organizations created or nurtured by White nationalist John Tanton.
As FAIR’s ads in Michigan in 2000 indicate, the anti-immigrant movement didn’t need to change much to adapt to this new political climate. Its agenda and rhetoric were already inherently exclusionary, and its leaders already eager to foment bigotry and discriminatory policies against Muslims in the U.S. and abroad. But they were aided by a new right-wing ecosystem that coalesced in the years following 9/11, comprised of bloggers, politicians, cable news anchors, and NGOs, all amplifying anti-Muslim/-Islam narratives and calling to limit the entry of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from abroad. With the rise of these narratives, the anti-immigrant movement identified this burgeoning anti-Muslim coalition as a natural constituency for many of its preferred policies and began collaborating with them.
Groups like FAIR would mobilize in a variety of ways, citing 9/11 as a new justification for their long-held policy positions. “We have been focusing on document fraud for 25 years, and 9/11 was just a vindication of the concerns we have been raising all along,” said FAIR president Dan Stein in 2003, commenting on FAIR’s and its allies’ efforts to prohibit undocumented people from obtaining drivers licenses. FAIR worked with multiple organizations created after 9/11, most of which maintained direct ties to FAIR leadership, like 9/11 Families for a Secure America, to suggest broader support for the anti-immigrant movement’s agenda. FAIR’s sibling organization, the think tank Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), published reports and organized panel discussions at high-profile Washington, D.C., venues featuring anti-Muslim figures like Daniel Pipes and Frank Gaffney, speaking on Muslims’ supposed threat to national security. Oftentimes, the groups’ anti-Muslim bigotry was obscured by their focus on specific pieces of state and federal legislation or demographic data, such as visa issuance rates and analysis of Census Bureau figures on immigrants from Middle Eastern countries. But in other venues, the animus was clear, as when CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian wrote in a 2011 op-ed for the National Review, “I’m afraid that in the Islamic world democracy faces the problem of a vicious people, one where the desire for freedom is indeed written in every human heart, but the freedom to do evil.”
9/11 provided the anti-immigrant movement an opportunity to amplify and mainstream “clash of civilizations” narratives that have long been at the core of its agenda. Krikorian took the lead of CIS in 1995, the same year that John Tanton’s Social Contract Press—which has published and organized convenings of anti-immigrant leaders and White nationalists for decades—released a third English translation of Jean Raspail’s viciously anti-immigrant 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints. That edition, like a previous print run in 1983, was made possible by the fortune of late Mellon Family heiress Cordelia Scaife May. (While May died in 2005, FAIR, CIS, and other anti-immigrant organizations still receive substantial support from May’s Colcom Foundation.) Journalist Brendan O’Connor, author of Blood Red Lines: How Nativism Fuels the Right, notes that Camp “narrativizes what another French thinker, Renaud Camus, would later articulate as le grand replacement (the great replacement)…the idea that white people in Europe and the United States are being supplanted by people of color through a combination of falling birth rates and immigration.”
Raspail’s book reached new levels of notoriety during the 2016 campaign and Trump presidency. Prominent campaign and administration advisors including Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller approvingly cited the book to justify policy recommendations including the “Muslim Ban” and slashing refugee admissions by over 80 percent. FAIR readily took credit for the wins, touting these and other policies on its website under a tally of “immigration accomplishments.”
Many aspects of FAIR’s and the anti-immigrant movement’s vision were already realized before Trump entered office. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 offered a pretense to build upon the criminalization and mass deportation apparatus created by laws the movement helped author in the 1990s. It also helped popularize FAIR’s crusade against multiculturalism and non-White population growth—implicit expressions of the movement’s White nationalist orientation. As FAIR lawyer Michael Hethmon charged in a 2003 Albany Law Review article, “A tenet of multiculturalism is that one man’s terrorist can be another’s freedom fighter or victim of persecution…September 11 has simply injected this dilemma into popular discourse,” and “increasing population growth and urbanization have increased the risk that individuals can function as implements of mass destruction, without the need for advanced military technology.”
Hethmon’s article was published the same year the responsibilities of federal immigration enforcement were reconstituted under two agencies—U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement—and housed within the new Department of Homeland Security. The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), introduced in 2002, was one of the government’s first post-9/11 efforts to monitor and limit entry to the U.S., primarily from Muslim-majority countries. The program was developed by Kris Kobach, then an advisor to Attorney General John Ashcroft. In 2004, Kobach argued to a U.S. Senate committee that NSEERS “may be the only opportunity to stop a terrorist attack” and called for expanding local police power to include immigration enforcement. NSEERS was suspended in 2011, but not before ensnaring 83,000 people in its “special registration” process and placing over 13,000 people into deportation removal proceedings. Kobach later joined FAIR’s legal team to bolster the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration enforcement dragnet, working directly with Hethmon to draft and defend “show me your papers laws,” like Arizona’s SB 1070, across the country.
Like nearly a dozen other leading figures within the organized anti-immigrant movement, Kobach became an advisor to the Trump campaign and later administration. He met with the president-elect in November 2016 and was photographed carrying documents that visibly outlined the movement’s policy recommendations. Among them: reviving the NSEERS program and implementing “extreme vetting” to determine whether individuals “support Sharia law, jihad, equality of men and women, [and] the United States Constitution.” The latter was likely inspired by CIS head Mark Krikorian’s call to revive Cold War-era “ideological exclusion” policies, which he offered in 2015 as a “grown-up alternative” to Trump’s campaign vow to enact a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
“Trump understood something about the War on Terror,” Spencer Ackerman notes in his recent book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. “He recognized that the 9/11 era’s grotesque subtext—the perception of nonwhites as alien marauders, even as conquerors, from a hostile foreign civilization—was its engine.” That subtext has powered two decades of exclusionary policies, fomented state and vigilante violence against Muslims, and perpetuated untold atrocities abroad. The anti-immigrant movement provides both ideological support and specific policy frameworks to maintain this status quo while also seeking to strengthen state mechanisms to further marginalize communities of color under the guise of “national security.”
Until those mechanisms are done away with, largely unchecked criminalization and repression will wreak havoc on all communities the Right seeks to marginalize. This has and will continue during times of centrist leadership. And when the Right assumes more direct power over policy, the anti-immigrant movement will once again be there to offer a guiding hand and make matters much worse.
 Peter Marks, “Special-Interest Groups Widening Political Attack Ads,” The New York Times, May 14, 2000, https://www.nytimes.com/2000/05/14/us/special-interest-groups-widening-….
 Christopher Marquis, “THE 43rd PRESIDENT: Man in the News; Edmund Spencer Abraham,” The New York Times, January 3, 2001, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/01/03/us/the-43rd-president-man-in-the-new….
 Tim Craig, “Driver’s license bill veto is urged,” Baltimore Sun, May 5, 2003, https://www.baltimoresun.com/latest/bal-md.veto05may05-story.html.
 “‘Racist’ Anti-Immigration Ads Denounce Republicans and Democrats,” Southern Poverty Law Center, July 20, 2004, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2004/racist-anti-immigration-ads-denounce-republicans-and-democrats; Matt Hildreth, “Report: Front Groups for the Anti-Immigrant Lobby,” America’s Voice, March 1, 2011, https://americasvoice.org/research/report_front_groups_for_the_anti-imm….
 “Panel Transcript: Immigration from the Middle East,” Center for Immigration Studies, August 14, 2002, https://cis.org/Panel-Transcript-Immigration-Middle-East.
 “Panel Transcript: The French Riots and U.S. Immigration Policy,” Center for Immigration Studies, November 14, 2005, https://cis.org/Panel-Transcript-French-Riots-and-US-Immigration-Policy.
 David North, “Some Visa Categories Are More Vulnerable than Others,” Center for Immigration Studies, January 8, 2012, https://cis.org/Memorandum/Some-Visa-Categories-Are-More-Vulnerable-Oth….
 Steven A. Camarota, “Immigrants from the Middle East: A Profile of the Foreign-Born Population from Pakistan to Morocco,” Center for Immigration Studies, August 1, 2002, https://cis.org/Report/Immigrants-Middle-East.
 Mark Krikorian, “Be Careful What You Wish For,” National Review, April 27, 2011, https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/be-careful-what-you-wish-mark-kri….
 Caleb Kieffer, “The Social Contract Publishes its Last Tract,” Southern Poverty Law Center, April 23, 2020, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2020/04/23/social-contract-publishe….
 Julian Routh and Rich Lord, “Colcom Foundation, rooted in environmentalism, increasingly focuses on anti-immigration groups,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 3, 2019, https://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2019/06/24/colcom-foundation-an….
 Brendan O’Connor, Blood Red Lines: How Nativism Fuels the Right (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), 46-47.
 Michael Edison Hayden, “Miller Pushed Racist ‘Camp of the Saints’ Beloved by Far Right,” Southern Poverty Law Center, November 12, 2019, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2019/11/12/miller-pushed-racist-cam….
 Anita Snow and Julie Watson, “Under Trump, US no longer leads world on refugee protections,” Associated Press, October 26, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/donald-trump-politics-virus-outbreak-immigra….
 “Trump Administration Immigration Accomplishments,” Federation for American Immigration Reform, accessed September 1, 2021, https://www.fairus.org/issue/presidential-administration/trump-administ….
 “Where the White House Gets its Racist Immigration Policies,” Political Research Associates, March 1, 2018, https://www.politicalresearch.org/2018/03/01/where-the-white-house-gets….
 Michael M Hethmon, “Immigration Policy: Diversity, Mass Immigration, and National Security After 9/11 - An Immigration Reform Movement Perspective,” Albany Law Review, 2003, https://www.irli.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/2003-albany-law-review….
 “Testimony of Kris W. Kobach,” U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, April 22, 2004, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Kobach%20Testimony%20042….
 Muzaffar Chishti and Claire Bergeron, “DHS Announces End to Controversial Post-9/11 Immigrant Registration and Tracking Program,” Migration Policy Institute, May 17, 2011, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/dhs-announces-end-controversial….
 Andrea Nill Sanchez, “The Group Behind the Harshest Immigration Bill In America,” ThinkProgress, April 22, 2010, https://archive.thinkprogress.org/the-group-behind-the-harshest-immigra….
 Luciana Lopez, “Two hawkish anti-immigration groups say consulted by Trump,” Reuters, October 7, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-immigration/two-h…; “How Members of Anti-Immigrant Extremist Groups Have Worked Closely With—And Joined—The Trump Administration,” American Oversight, November 18, 2020, https://www.americanoversight.org/how-members-of-anti-immigrant-extremi….
 Sabrina Siddiqui, “Trump cabinet contender accidentally unveils hardline anti-refugee proposals,” The Guardian, November 21, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/21/donald-trump-kris-kobac….
 Mark Krikorian, “It’s Time for a Grown-Up Alternative to Trump’s Crude Muslim-Immigration Proposal,” National Review, December 8, 2015, https://www.nationalreview.com/2015/12/donald-trump-muslim-immigration/.
 Jessica Taylor, “Trump Calls For ‘Total and Complete Shutdown Of Muslims Entering’ U.S.,” NPR, December 7, 2015, https://www.npr.org/2015/12/07/458836388/trump-calls-for-total-and-comp….
 Spencer Ackerman, “McChrystal: ‘Impossible to Argue’ War on Terror Was Worth It,” The Daily Beast, August 8, 2021, https://www.thedailybeast.com/mcchrystal-impossible-to-argue-war-on-ter….