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Meet the Nativists

Introducing Rep. Tommy Tancredo, Glenn Spencer and Jim Gilchrist -- the political leaders of a growing xenophobic movement in the United States.
 
 
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The Intelligence Report is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

One of them says he'd like to bring nuclear weapons to the border. Another vows to stop the alleged Mexican invasion of Idaho. Several have links to white supremacist hate groups; others are given to dire warnings of horrible diseases, "barbaric" practices, and secret Latino conspiracies to "reconquer" the American Southwest. These are the nativists -- the new crop of activists who are driving the movement that exploded last spring with the Minuteman Project in Arizona, a monthlong effort by armed civilians to seal the border with Mexico.

Along with a whole array of media enablers, they have barged into the nation's consciousness with remarkable success. Some of them, like Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist, have made attempts to win high political office.

Others have contented themselves with trying to build a mass movement. Not all those who have joined the movement are extremists -- many are legitimately concerned about the ability of the nation to absorb large numbers of immigrants, particularly the undocumented. But one thing seems clear: A dangerous mix of nativist intolerance, armed and untrained civilians, and wild-eyed conspiracy theories could easily explode into violence.

The following are three profiles taken from the Intelligence Report's comprehensive review of nativist leaders in America.

Rep. Tom Tancredo
Littleton, Colo.

As the face of the anti-immigration movement in Congress, Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo has enraged countless members of his own party. In 2002, presidential advisor Karl Rove, angered at Tancredo's attacks on President Bush's approach to immigration, told him "never to darken the door of the White House again." Last April, after Bush called armed anti-immigration Minutemen patrolling the Arizona border "vigilantes," Tancredo told the Minutemen that Bush should have to write an apology on a blackboard 100 times, then erase the chalk with his tongue. More recently still, Tancredo endorsed three primary challengers to his Republican House colleagues and even, in California, a Democratic candidate.

None of this seems to bother the man who started the hard-line Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus in 1999. In fact, he has gone from what many consider one outrageous action to another. Campaigning for a Senate candidate in Illinois, he warned that illegal immigrants are "coming here to kill you and to kill me and our families." When a Denver newspaper ran a sympathetic article describing the plight of a high school valedictorian whose family was undocumented, Tancredo sought to have the family found and deported. In a discussion with a radio talk show host last July, he suggested that the United States should "take out" Mecca and other Islamic holy sites if the country is hit by a major terrorist attack launched by Muslims.

Because of his outrageous rhetoric and hard-line views, Tancredo is seen in heroic terms in the anti-immigration world. Barbara Coe, who heads one hate group and belongs to another, says Tancredo is a "gold-plated, card-carrying patriot." Angela "Bay" Buchanan, a hard-right activist, thinks he should run for president. Tancredo received a hero's welcome when he keynoted at an anti-immigration conference attended by 400 activists last Memorial Day weekend.

Tancredo often doesn't sound much different than the activists who spread fears about a supposed secret Mexican plot to reconquer the Southwest. "China is trying to export people," he told one anti-immigration group. "It's a policy for them, a way of extending their hegemony. It's a government-sponsored thing."

Jim Gilchrist
Aliso Viejo, Calif.

Less than a year ago, Jim Gilchrist's vision of the future was plainly apocalyptic. The country, he predicted to one newspaper reporter, will have "100 tribes with 100 languages," a situation from which "mayhem" will result. "I see neighborhood armies of 20 to 40 going out and killing and invading one another," he said. Too many immigrants, he added, could even result in a full-scale civil war -- a situation he suggested might be avoided by inciting a revolution in Mexico.

"Illegal immigrants will destroy this country," Gilchrist said last May. "Every time a Mexican flag is planted on American soil, it is a declaration of war." By late August, Gilchrist wasn't talking like that any more.

Of course, by then he was a candidate for Congress from Southern California, where he lives with his wife and their dogs in the small city of Aliso Viejo. Gone was the rhetoric about civil war and private armies and immigrants who are legal. In fact, Gilchrist began to carefully enunciate support for legal immigrants.

It isn't the first time Gilchrist has changed his tune. He started out as a registered Democrat, then became a Republican. In 2003, he backed a candidate of the Green Party, America's largest left-wing political party. But now, Gilchrist is running in the 48th Congressional District on the ticket of the American Independent Party (AIP), the organization founded by former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a racist who promised from the steps of the Alabama Capitol to defend segregation "forever."

(Today, AIP's platform does not mention race. Affiliated with the far-right Constitution Party, the AIP is notable for its anti-government stance.)

Gilchrist, a retired accountant, is running, essentially, on a single credential: the fact that he is co-founder, along with Chris Simcox, of the Minutemen, a group of people who have tried to seal the Mexican border with paramilitary citizen patrols. Few analysts believe he has a chance, although he may do reasonably well.

Gilchrist, conceding that Gov. Wallace "was probably a bigot," insists he is no racist. But he is a close friend of Barbara Coe, who routinely describes Mexicans as "savages" and recently said she was a member of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a hate group that opposes "race-mixing." Gilchrist also is a member of Coe's California Coalition for Immigration Reform, another hate group.

Glenn Spencer
Cochise County, Ariz.

If there were a Paul Revere of the anti-immigration movement, it would be Glenn Spencer, a vitriolic Mexican-basher who may have done more than anyone to spread the myth of a secret Mexican conspiracy to reconquer the Southwest. The so-called reconquista, an alleged plot to turn several American states into a Mexican state or some kind of puppet government controlled by Mexico, has been a top concern for Spencer for years. Back in 1999, he put it like this: "The consul general says Mexico is reconquering California. A Mexican intellectual suggests that anyone who doesn't like Mexicans should leave California. What else do you need to hear? RECONQUISTA IS REAL. … EVERY ILLEGAL ALIEN IN OUR NATION MUST BE DEPORTED IMMEDIATELY. … IF WE CAN BOMB THE TV STATION IN BELGRADE [in the former Yugoslavia], WE CAN SHUT DOWN [U.S. Spanish-language stations] TELEMUNDO AND UNIVISION."

Spencer got involved in the anti-immigration movement in 1992, when he formed Voice of Citizens Together, also known as American Patrol, in California. In 2002, saying the battle was lost in that state, he moved to the "front lines" of the Arizona border, where he formed American Border Patrol. He was one of the first to call for border citizens' patrols and pioneered the use of surveillance technology.

He also was one of the first well-known anti-immigration activists to more or less openly court white supremacists and anti-Semites. He has attended conferences of American Renaissance magazine, which specializes in racist theories about blacks and others. He interviewed the magazine's editor, Jared Taylor, on his syndicated radio show. Another guest was Kevin MacDonald, a California State University, Long Beach professor, who is the architect of an elaborate anti-Semitic theory dressed up as evolutionary biology.

Just this September, Spencer promoted on his website a booklet published by Taylor called "The Color of Crime." The booklet is a "relentlessly factual" study that alleges that blacks and Hispanics are far more likely than whites to be criminals. It also falsely alleges people of color commit vastly more hate crimes than others. Sometimes Spencer's racial paranoia seems to get the better of him. One night in 2003, thinking he was hearing noises outside his Sierra Vista, Ariz., home, he grabbed a gun and started shooting into the dark. He managed to hit a neighbor's garage, among other things, and was charged with four felonies. But charges like that have a habit of going away in Southeastern Arizona. In Spencer's case, his felony charges were reduced to one misdemeanor. He was fined $2,500 and given a year's probation. His lease was also terminated, and he was forced to move away, taking up residence in a trailer in unincorporated Cochise County.