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Anti-immigration group organized Northwest Montana lawmakers' trip to southern border

Daily Inter Lake | May 14, 2024 12:00 AM

Two Northwest Montana lawmakers toured the southern border in March with NumbersUSA, a self-described immigration reform group that organizations who track extremists say is tied to the racist founder of the modern anti-immigration movement. 

State Reps. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, and Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, were among a small group of Montana legislators to visit the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a trip organized by NumbersUSA. Both said they were unaware of NumbersUSA’s history or reputation.

NumbersUSA has often been described as an anti-immigrant group whose primary goal is pressuring elected officials to reject pro-immigration legislation and immigration reform, according to Stephen Piggot, a researcher and program director at the Western States Center, a Portland, Oregon-based group that tracks extremists. 

“I have no issue with elected officials visiting the [southern border] ... but for elected officials to accept an invite to tour the border with a group like NumbersUSA is deeply problematic,” said Piggot, who has spent the last 15 years keeping tabs on NumbersUSA.

The group was founded in 1996 by Roy Beck, who had very close ties to John Tanton, founder of the modern anti-immigration movement, Piggot said.

Described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as holding white nationalist beliefs, Tanton argued that a “European-American majority” is required to preserve American culture, according to the civil rights and racial justice nonprofit. Tanton, a Michigan-based ophthalmologist who died in 2019, spearheaded efforts through the group ProEnglish that opposed bilingual education and the translating of government documents into other languages.

Over time, Tanton created a network of immigration organizations, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies. NumbersUSA was founded by Beck, whom Tanton had described as his “heir apparent,” Piggot said.

“[Tanton] certainly had a role in it some way of forming this organization,” Piggot said. 

The three groups profoundly shaped the immigration debate in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

“I still think [NumbersUSA is] influential, I would still consider them to be one of the three main anti-immigration groups on the Hill,” Piggot said. 

When asked about the group’s history, Mitchell said he had “never heard of them.” 

“I don’t agree with radical movements, ideas or ideals, be it ideas backed by liberal, white nationalism, black, brown, yellow or white people,” Gunderson said. “Illegal immigration is a cross-cultural American problem. I remain colorblind to ideals and movements but focus on the national issue of illegal immigration which remains illegal.”

NumbersUSA disputes how it is characterized by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other extremist monitoring groups.

In an April opinion piece published by the Denver Post, NumbersUSA leaders argued it is a policy group with mainstream positions on immigration reform.

“This allegation would be laughable if it weren’t so serious,” wrote Leon Kolankiewicz, the scientific director of the group, in the piece. 

According to Kolankiewicz, Beck founded NumbersUSA in 1996 to advocate for solutions proposed by Barbara Jordan, then-chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, who recommended scaling back legal immigration and cracking down on illegal immigration. 

“The term ‘white supremacy’ should never be used around any of us, other than to state our firm opposition to the ideology,” Kolankiewicz wrote. 

NumbersUSA also includes a page on its website dedicated to “No Immigrant Bashing,” which states that the group encourages Americans concerned about immigration to refrain from anger toward “the foreign-born who live among us.” 

Piggot said that the history of the group, specifically its ties to Tanton and his racist rhetoric, cannot be erased. The group hasn’t “cleaned house,” Piggot said, and there isn’t much of a difference between what the group looked like and stood for 20 years ago to today. 

Piggot encourages legislators and citizens to research groups addressing immigration to see where they came from. 

“It’s totally fine to go down to the border, but you need to be thoughtful,” Piggot said. 

FOLLOWING THE trip, both Gunderson and Mitchell expressed concern for what they saw in terms of border security, an influx of immigrants and a lack of federal action.

“There are problems that are actually present at both borders, the southern border being much more of a problem. Fentanyl, human trafficking, illegal immigrants …  the same issues exist at both borders, it’s just a difference in magnitude for the southern border,” said Gunderson, reflecting on his trip. 

Gunderson said he learned of the trip from other state legislators. Andrew Good, the NumberUSA’s director of state government relations, said that if enough people were interested they could arrange a tour. According to NumbersUSA, each legislator paid for their own trip. Good led the group.

Gunderson said he gained knowledge from other legislators about what can hopefully be done at a state level during his time at the border.

He said the effort that migrants made to cross the border left an impression on him.

“... That was the one thing that really struck me: Seeing people that are so aggressively doing whatever they have to do to get across the border. It’s the draw of the American dream,” he said. “But at the same time they are breaking our laws and destroying our heritage.” 

The trip was the first of its kind, according to Good. The goal was to see the border, learn about its existing infrastructure and talk to people on the ground, he said. The group observed the border at the Yuma sector in Arizona and then traveled to the San Diego area. 

“... The states are going to deal with any fallout from illegal immigration as long as illegal immigration [continues to] have significant costs or impacts,” Good said. 

Mitchell, a two-term legislator up for re-election this year, stated that it was important for him to tour the southern border because of the “influx of fentanyl, crime, rapes, etc. that many of these illegal migrants are bringing to our state,” Mitchell said in a statement. 

"I believe a country isn't a country without a strong and secure border,” Mitchell said. "I wish I wouldn't of had to go down to the border, but due to Joe Biden and the Democratic Party's open border policies, I was left with no choice but to see it with my own eyes and reflect what I saw back to my constituents and the people of Montana."

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at or 758-4459.