In Immigrant Fight, Grass-Roots Groups Boost Their Clout

Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2006

San Bernardino, Calif.—Armed with a computer and less than $100, Joseph Turner two years ago formed a group called “Save Our State.” His goal: save California from turning into a “Third World cesspool” of illegal immigrants, he says. The group doesn’t have a formal membership, and Mr. Turner counts barely 2,000 people on his email list and message board.

Yet this meager base has proved to be a powerful springboard. Through his Web site, Mr. Turner has recruited supporters to hold confrontational protests outside Home Depot stores, where unauthorized workers often gather to seek jobs. He has also helped ignite a nationwide movement by local governments to crack down on illegal immigration. So far, about 10 towns have passed ordinances to drive out undocumented immigrants after getting the idea from Mr. Turner. Dozens of other towns are considering such measures.

“My idea of activism is aggressive, street-level and in-your-face activism,” says Mr. Turner, who strikes a clean-cut look with slicked-back black hair and icy blue eyes. He adds: “I don’t believe in turning the other cheek.”

Mr. Turner is part of an anti-immigrant brushfire that is gathering force at the grass-roots level around the U.S. Small groups like Mr. Turner’s Save Our State are cropping up from coast to coast, recruiting members and devising tactics to tackle illegal immigration in their communities. Critics call many of these groups racist, a charge organizers deny. What no one disputes is that they are tapping into widespread frustration over the federal government’s failure to adopt a national immigration policy while a deeply divided Congress clashes over how to deal with 12 million illegal immigrants.

The Center for New Community, a Chicago organization that tracks immigration issues, says there are 211 so-called nativist groups—groups that advocate protecting the interests of native inhabitants against those of immigrants—across the U.S., up from 37 two years ago. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, also says nativist groups are on the rise and that several are hate groups, including Mr. Turner’s Save Our State. The law center defines a hate group as one that singles out and promotes hatred of another group, based on ethnicity, language, religion, sexual inclination or immigration status. Mr. Turner denies he runs a hate group.

These grass-roots organizations are having an impact. In North Carolina, state legislators say the fierce opposition of one anti-illegal immigration group torpedoed a bill proposed last year that would have allowed undocumented students who graduate from state high schools to pay in-state college tuition. In Georgia, another group’s mobilization efforts were crucial to passing a bill last spring to curb illegal immigration. In Arizona, a group called Protect Our City is pushing for local officials, including police officers, to help federal authorities enforce immigration laws within Phoenix.

The groups are often one-man shows, steered by tech-savvy leaders who creatively use the Web to mobilize support for immigration protests, boycotts, legislation and media coverage in their areas. Their influence is amplified as they find each other online and coordinate their efforts. Save Our State has occasionally joined forces with a North Carolina group as well as the volunteer group Minuteman Project, which patrols the border with the goal of stopping illegal immigrants from entering U.S. soil.

Several budding groups receive funding from older, well-endowed national organizations, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has been battling immigration for decades. Ron Woodard, head of NC Listen, a North Carolina group, says he improved his public-speaking skills in courses sponsored by FAIR. The Washington, D.C.-based national group, which advocates curbing legal immigration as well as stopping illegal entries to the U.S., also provided his group with “minor” financial support, he says.

Striking a Chord

These groups often strike a chord in small towns and areas where Hispanics are relative newcomers. Immigrants are increasingly bypassing traditional Hispanic centers in big cities, California and the southwest. Instead, they’re settling in smaller, homogeneous towns and in Middle America, where many residents are still unaccustomed to them and fear that wages are being undercut by immigrants taking blue-collar jobs in their community.

“The financial costs to Georgia taxpayers of supplying [bilingual] education, incarceration, medical care and social benefits to the hundreds of thousands of people who are here in violation of our laws is becoming impossible to ignore,” declared one Web site run by a Georgia grass-roots group, the Dustin Inman Society. “Someone please point to a case of wages in Georgia having gone up because of illegal immigration!”

Anti-immigrant sentiment has swept the U.S. before, targeting Irish, Italian, Jewish, Chinese and Japanese newcomers. In response to public outcry against the influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe after World War I, Congress passed the Quota Act of 1921 and then the even more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. These days, hostility is directed at Spanish-speaking immigrants, especially illegal immigrants who are decried as a burden on taxpayers and a threat to national security.

William Gheen, a former conservative campaign strategist and legislative assistant, formed the Americans for Legal Immigration-PAC, or ALIPAC, on Sept. 11, 2004, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Hispanic illegal immigrants aren’t blowing up skyscrapers, “but they steal American jobs, depress American wages and can wreck American lives,” Mr. Gheen says. “They’re the enemies in our streets.” He says his group, run from his home in Raleigh, N.C., boasts supporters from all 50 states and has raised $40,000 so far this year. “Most contributions come from concerned individuals, checks for $25 to $50,” Mr. Gheen says.

The money comes from people like Lisa Mercier, a Hartselle, Ala., homemaker and devout southern Baptist who says the issue piqued her interest when Latino gangs moved into her former neighborhood on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. “With terrorism the way it is, we can’t have our border wide open,” she says, adding: “All the poor would like to come here.”

Last year, four North Carolina lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill that would entitle undocumented students who graduate from North Carolina high schools to attend universities paying in-state tuition. Mr. Gheen mounted an opposition campaign on the Web, lobbied in the halls of the state legislature and spread his message on a conservative radio talk show.

Several state legislators who signed the bill subsequently asked to remove their names from it. The bill never moved out of committee.

“This little organization got it on talk radio and created a firestorm,” says North Carolina State Representative Paul Luebke, a Democrat and a primary sponsor of the bill. “Right-wing talk radio amplified the message. They hammered away on it incessantly. This enraged large numbers of people.”

Mr. Luebke also says Mr. Gheen preyed on the discomfort felt by many white North Carolinians over the increased visibility of Latinos—the spread of Mexican restaurants and stores, Spanish-language signs and Spanish-language movies at video stores. With manufacturing jobs also moving overseas, “the brown immigrant was an easy scapegoat,” says Mr. Luebke.

Mr. Gheen says his is a “moderate group” and denies trying to stir up racial animosities.


Mr. Turner grew up in Southern California’s so-called Smog Belt, which includes San Bernardino and other working-class towns. His biological father, an alcoholic, walked out of his life when he was about eight years old, he says. His mother remarried a Mexican-American, whom Mr. Turner considers his father. He heard a lot of Spanish growing up. Mr. Turner says his mother was a drug addict who spent time incarcerated, and describes his stepfather as a “former gang banger” who abused drugs and was imprisoned. Both have since been rehabilitated, he says. Mr. Turner’s mother, Janice Aguayo, confirms his account.

Incensed by the outcry of civil-rights and Hispanic groups against roundups of undocumented immigrants by U.S. authorities in southern California in 2004, Mr. Turner started his own group to battle illegal immigration, Save Our State. His first target was Home Depot, where immigrants often wait for homeowners seeking an extra hand at gardening or painting.

“With as little as five people you can shut down a day-laborer center,” says Mr. Turner, because employers will be too intimidated to stop and hire them. Contractors have been deterred from hiring from these sites during the protests and in several days that followed. Home Depot declines to comment on Mr. Turner.

At a rally outside the day-laborer center in the ritzy coastal town of Laguna Beach, neo-Nazis and white supremacists waved Nazi and confederate flags. Mr. Turner says they weren’t welcome at the event but that he couldn’t stop them and that Save our State members left shortly after they arrived. Mr. Turner says he also deletes white-supremacist rhetoric when it pops up on his Web site’s message board.

About a year ago, Mr. Turner drafted a three-page ordinance—the “City of San Bernardino Illegal Immigrant Relief Act.” Although it was derailed before it could come to a citywide vote, the ordinance went on to be imitated, and passed, by several towns and cities across the country.


Before the ordinance could go to a citywide vote, a judge ruled that Mr. Turner hadn’t collected enough signatures and granted him 10 days to make up the difference, or nearly twice the original number of signatures. Concluding he couldn’t achieve that, Mr. Turner let his hometown effort die.

But over the next few weeks, it sprang back to life—in the form of copycat initiatives taken up in small towns across the country, including Valley Park, Mo., Riverside, N.J., and Hazleton, Pa. Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta was searching for ways to crack down on illegal immigration when he found Mr. Turner’s petition on the Internet, though he says he isn’t familiar with the views of Mr. Turner or his group. Hazleton now prohibits anyone from renting to or hiring illegal immigrants, and has made English the town’s official language. Civil-rights groups are challenging the legislation in court.

Mr. Turner, who has a young son with his girlfriend, recently decided to run for the local San Bernardino school board. He says that he plans to challenge the Supreme Court ruling that allowed all children living in the U.S. to attend school, regardless of their immigration status. He also works as a field representative for Republican state assemblyman Ray Haynes, who represents a district on the Mexico-California border about an hour’s drive from San Bernardino.

Mr. Haynes says he doesn’t agree with all of Mr. Turner’s views and rhetoric but admires his work ethic and energy. “He’s on fire,” says Mr. Haynes.

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