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The Awkward Racial Politics of Immigration Reform

No sooner had I flipped open a notebook than Mike Cutler pounced. “Who are you with? Let’s find some air conditioning,” he said, altogether skipping the step where he introduces himself and offers to be interviewed. I understood why when Cutler, who is a former INS agent and a go-to anti-immigration voice for media, appeared a little hurt that I couldn’t place him without gentle prompting. We passed a gaggle of geriatric sign-bearers huddled in Freedom Plaza’s sparse shade. “Keep up the good work, Mike!” one yelled to him. He turned to me. “I get that a lot. You don’t do over three hundred TV interviews without getting recognized.”

That about sums up the scene at the DC March for Jobs, a modestly-sized rally against immigration “amnesty” that slithered its way from downtown D.C. to a park just north of the U.S. Capitol. (It lasted, in the sweltering heat, into the early afternoon.) Being, as it is, a Tea Party event with black organizers—who have myriad ties to immigration hate groups, eugenicists, neo-confederates—previews of the rally treated it like suspicious political theater at best. “Message to critics: Take all your snotty assumptions about immigration opponents being a bunch of racist white folk and shove ‘em,” said Michelle Cottle, writing for the Daily Beast.

And it is theater, inasmuch as any political rally works like a homing beacon for the same old faces, watchwords, and serial sound bite generators. Standing before the crowd of a few hundred or so around noon, Rep. Mo Brooks proffered “statistics that the news media doesn’t want to share with you.” Sen. Jeff Sessions enjoyed polite applause with his every twangy mention of America’s “native borns.” Headliners nodded at the day’s theme, black job creation, perfunctorily—or in the case of former Rep. Allen West, inscrutably. “You cannot have immigration reform unless you have tax reform, because we’ve got to get Americans back to work,” he said. The bulk of rally-goers resembled the sweaty, pink sexagenarians I saw lofting a Marco Rubio cutout wearing President Barack Obama’s ears—“SELLOUT!” read the sign. Senator Ted Cruz mounted the dais to abuse the phrase “real America” and talk about the border before a sea of Gadsden flags.

Still, when you gather a group of arch-arch-conservatives starlets to ostensibly rally for black job creation, you tend to get some cognitive dissonance (as when the Breitbart livecast cut away from a string of black speakers for a conversation with Senator Jeff Sessions about listening to black voters). Were all of the rally’s organizers comfortable beside Iowa Rep. Steve King, who said Obama’s election would cause Islamic terrorists to “dance in the streets” because his middle name is Hussein? Or Sessions, a man whom former colleagues have heard say he “used to think [the Ku Klux Klan] were OK” until he learned some of them were “pot smokers”?

“Oh, wow. That’s a big one,” said Nora Massey, 47. Massey helped Black American Leadership Alliance (BALA) co-founder Leah Durant organize the rally and was one of a group bused down from Buffalo to attend. “I would support Steve King before Sessions, if he’s making slurs like that. That’s not supportive or professional.” Ellee Bishop, a D.C. local, took issue with Rep. Steve King’s support of racial profiling. “If all that is true, that means two words,” she said. “Bad faith.” Bishop’s friend, who would go only as Jasmine, clapped in triumph. “I told her!” she said. She had tagged along only for a later event in the area, which is “really about African American unemployment,” she said. “Up on that stage, they are not serious about us.” A couple from Ohio who wanted to go by their first names, Mark and Elaine, had a different take on Sessions. “I don’t know what motivates a person to say such nasty things,” Mark said. He clarified that he meant the former colleague who testified to Sessions’s KKK remark—not Sessions himself. “Those blacks are his constituents, their problems are his issues.” Naomi Smith, 42, interjected. “I have a problem with that,” she said. “Saying things like that makes him not our ally.” Mark and Elaine slunk away.

Jacob Smith, 38, who read somewhere about the entanglements of the rally’s organizers—like BALA’s ties to a group funded by white supremacists—had yet a different take. Smith (who is not related to Naomi) has recently become unemployed and said he is willing to turn out for anyone who, as he sees it, stands in the way of 11 million new job applicants joining the workforce. “The enemy of my enemy, you know?” he said. Or as Cutler put it—the indefatigable former INS agent has worked for nativist think tanks and has warned that a large percentage of immigrants carry dangerous pathogens—letting in more immigrants, “It’s like believing that the solution to finding a hole in the bottom of your boat is drilling more holes.” He grinned, dripping sweat. “Now how’s that for a quote?”

Molly Redden is a staff writer for The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.