The nativists are restless

Pub date June 30, 2009

The comments sections of the Guardian‘s Politics blog and the San Francisco Chronicle‘s SFGate Web site have been lit up over the past week with angry (and sometimes overtly racist) denunciations of Latino immigrants, triggered by the latest Chronicle stories challenging San Francisco’s Sanctuary City policies and by Guardian revelations that Chronicle writer Jaxon Van Derkeken accepted an award and substantial cash payment from a controversial nativist group.

While Van Derbeken, two Chronicle editors interviewed by the Guardian, and other critics of San Francisco’s longstanding policy of not notifying federal authorities about the arrests of undocumented immigrants have denied trying to stir up nativist furor, the tone and content of many of these comments seems to indicate they’ve done exactly that.

The saga began June 19 when we published “Chronicle accepts award and cash from anti-immigrant group” on our Politics blog. The story began: “San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken recently accepted an award and cash prize (he refuses to say how much) from the Center for Immigration Studies — which a Southern Poverty Law Center report in February 2009 criticized for its overtly racist roots and extreme anti-immigrant agenda — for his controversial articles on San Francisco’s Sanctuary City policies.

“CIS paid for Van Derbeken to accept the award at the National Press Club and conservative Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders to introduce him earlier this month, an appearance they used to make derogatory comments about San Francisco, its values, and local immigrant rights activists, while saying little to rebuke the group for stirring up hateful nativist furor around what has become perhaps the country’s most divisive issue.”

Van Derbeken would only address the issue by e-mail, sending us two terse replies to our inquiry and refusing to answer most of our questions, including much how cash he received for a prize that we discovered paid $1,000 in 2001 (the complete e-mail exchange is include in our post).

“No one should mistake their decision to endorse my work for my endorsement of theirs,” was Van Derbeken’s most substantive comment, although he refused to offer an opinion on CIS or the SPLC report, which he didn’t read until after accepting the award. “I haven’t drawn any conclusions about it.”

CIS executive director Mark Krikorian, author of The New Case Against Immigration, Both Legal and Illegal (2008, Sentinel), responded to our inquires with an e-mail blaming the “jihad against dissent from the elite consensus for open borders” and referring to a column he wrote for National Review Online criticizing SPLC’s fundraising.

But in the past, Krikorian has called for the federal government to cut off funding to San Francisco and even prosecute local elected officials, writing in his CIS blog, “Local neutrality on immigration is no longer possible. Every jurisdiction in the country has a choice to make: Either buttress federal efforts at immigration control or subvert them. San Francisco has chosen the second option. It should now learn the consequences.”

We did phone interviews with Van Derbeken’s editors, Managing Editor Steve Proctor and Assistant Managing Editor Ken Conner, who both defended the stories and the decision to accept the award. Neither would reveal how much cash was involved, and neither would admit that it represented validating a group that recently has been vying for mainstream legitimacy.

“All issues have proponents and opponents,” Proctor told us, equating the award to those given for education and legal affairs reporting and denying that the immigration issue is more divisive and controversial. “At the end of the day, it isn’t about this group but about Jaxon’s stories,” Conner told us.

Those stories continued in high-profile fashion a few days later as Van Derbeken essentially rewrote a June 21 Los Angeles Times scoop about how San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris allowed a half-dozen undocumented immigrants to enroll in a rehabilitation program rather than turning them over to the feds. The details became front-page lead news stories in the Chronicle on June 22 and 23.

Local immigrant rights activists criticized the Chronicle stories and the paper’s decision to accept the CIS award and money.

“When I read these kind of stories that lead us down a dark path and play on people’s fears and paint immigrants with a broad brush — as a threat, as criminals, as dangerous to the community — I do think that there are anti-immigrant nativist centers egging on reporters like Jaxon down this dark path by giving him cash awards,” Phil Hwang, a staff attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, told us. “It’s part of the strategy these anti-immigrant groups are employing. It’s why they created this award. And if you look at who founded CIS and their vision, it’s clear that they believe America is under threat from non-white immigrants,”

Angela Chan of the Asian Law Caucus, whom Van Derbeken mentioned by name in his CIS award speech, said she is worried this latest round would weaken Harris’ support for Sanctuary City policies. That’s what happened to Mayor Gavin Newsom last fall, when Van Derbeken wrote the stories CIS honored.

“I’d hate to see another series of anti-immigrant scapegoating being used to make hasty policy decisions that violate the rights of immigrants, tear apart families, and increase the state of terror in immigrant communities,” Chan told us.

Harris, who is running for state attorney general, defended her decision to let undocumented immigrants complete the Back on Track program after their presence was brought to her attention, but has since changed the policy to bar them from enrolling. “No innovative initiative will ever be created without some unanticipated flaws to be fixed along the way, but this must not stop us from tackling tough problems with smart solutions,” she said in a prepared statement.

“These are tough economic times,” Hwang added. “People are very nervous about their jobs. And that is often when the [anti-immigrant] rhetoric ramps up.”

The Chronicle writer and editors and Krikorian stopped responding to Guardian inquiries. But the blogs were lit up with comments — hundreds of them from around the country at the bottom of Van Derbeken’s latest stories — that had some disturbing themes, accusations, and suggestions. They indicate that the radical nativists are using this issue — and the Chron‘s spin on it — to promote a dangerous agenda.

Here’s a small sampling:

<\!s> “Illegal aliens are like a plague.”

<\!s> “Kick out all Illegals, return the city to its rightful owners”

<\!s> “For God’s sake, STOP pandering to the ILLEGAL ALIENS and get rid of them!”

<\!s> “Anyone caught crossing the border illegally should be shot as a spy.”

<\!s> “The border ought to be land mined.”

<\!s> “What is this sham that diversity is great? It is tearing this country apart.”

Such sentiments — which we usually counter on the Guardian Politics blog — were met with silence by Van Derbeken.