tea-party-dhs-sign.jpgBy Marcelo Ballvé, New America Media

The Tea Party movement has energized activism against President Obama's vision for immigration reform.

The link between Tea Partiers and immigration politics developed last summer, when the impact of illegal immigration on the health care system became a prominent side issue in town hall debates.

Since then, illegal immigration has steadily gained ground on the Tea Party agenda.

Immigration "is one of our main issues in the state of North Carolina," said David DeGerolamo, co-founder of Tea Party group NC Freedom, in a phone interview. "And what it comes down to is that the United States is a republic based on the rule of law. What part of illegal is right?"

DeGerolamo is scheduled to give a talk today on "How to Unite State Tea Party Groups" at the National Tea Party Convention, which began yesterday in Nashville.

The Nashville event has devoted a good share of its spotlight to activists devoted to promoting get-tough policies against illegal immigrants and blocking White House plans to offer a path to legal status for the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants.

These activists label such legislation as amnesty, and they helped derail a similar effort in 2007 that had the backing of then-President George W. Bush.

Tom Tancredo, a former Colorado congressman whose signature issue was illegal immigration, was yesterday's kick-off speaker at the Nashville convention, which is headlined by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Tancredo served 10 years in the House beginning in 1999, but gained widespread notoriety in 2002 when he called for the deportation of an undocumented honors student after a newspaper wrote about his inability to gain in-state tuition for college.

Also leading a session at the convention is NumbersUSA, a Washington, D.C. organization that advocates for lower immigration levels.

In the Tea Parties, groups like NumbersUSA discovered a new opportunity to spread and amplify their message, said Devin Burghart, who tracks the Tea Party movement from Seattle for the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.

"It has become far more common for Tea Party groups to discuss the topic of undocumented immigrants at events and on their websites," he said. "In terms of their long-term planning it is clearly becoming a part of their agenda."

Of course, the links between hardline immigration activists and Tea Partiers don't necessarily add up to a united front on immigration.

With a movement as fractured, fast changing and diffuse as the Tea Parties, it's difficult to establish a clear idea of activists' views on a single issue.

"Immigration is not a part of the movement's 'platform,'" Keli Carender, a prominent Tea Party blogger and speaker at the Nashville convention, wrote in e-mail to New America Media. "I'm sure every person involved in the movement has their own personal views on immigration, and though they may be espoused from time to time, they ... may not be representative of anyone else in the movement."

Individual candidates linked to the Tea Party movement, however, have embraced the illegal immigration issue.

Judge Roy Moore, who is running as a conservative in Alabama's 2010 governor's race and will speak in Nashville, has made immigration one of the five topics covered in his platform.

Moore is known for his refusal as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the state courthouse.

"Definitely, he's against illegal immigration," said Moore spokesman John Wahl. "There are a lot of things that can be done. There's things like making the official language [in Alabama] English. That's just common sense when you think about it." Moore also supports state laws to penalize undocumented immigrant workers.

Moore's support for establishing English as an official language in Alabama is part of a wave of similar "English first" proposals that have caught on in state houses and city council chambers, in part thanks to the efforts of anti-illegal immigration activists. The issue has caught on with Tea Partiers, too.

For example, "official English" made a strong showing in the "Contract from America," a document being prepared online with input from Tea Partiers nationwide. The contract will signal the Tea Party movement's policy priorities ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.

Of the various immigration policy proposals submitted, "An Official Language of the United States" won the most votes. And it ranked eighth overall -- higher than interstate health insurance competition and just below a proposal to end lifetime salary and benefits for members of Congress.

The contract, which will be finalized this spring, has won praise from former House majority leader Dick Armey who heads FreedomWorks, the Washington, D.C.-based conservative group that has promoted Tea Party activism.

In the Florida Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat, Tea Party-fueled upstart conservative Marco Rubio has been pressed to take a more vocal stance against illegal immigration as he tries to steal the primary away from sitting Governor Charlie Crist, a moderate.

Javier Manjarres, 37, a Colombian-American conservative activist in South Florida, uploaded a video on YouTube Jan. 26 in which he grills Rubio on immigration and reminds the candidate of his opposition to "any form of amnesty for immigrants who have broken federal law and stayed in our country illegally."

The video was meant to showcase Rubio's views on illegal immigration after conservatives who accused him of being soft on the issue had heckled the candidate at a forum in Broward County, Manjarres said. "I think he just had to become more vocal. I think he's always had these views. He just never really had to defend them."

"Immigration is huge" with the Florida Tea Partiers, said Manjarres, who heads his own Ft. Lauderdale-based organization, Conservative Republican Alliance and moves in conservative and Tea Party circles. "Everyone knows what's at stake there. The immigration issue will be as big as health care."

Manjarres's organization was among the first to endorse Rubio's candidacy.

In Martin County, Fla., north of Palm Beach, the Martin 9-12 Tea Party Committee lists "enforcement of immigration laws," along with limited government and lower taxes, as one of its conditions for candidate endorsements.

The Tea Partiers' connection to immigration was forged last summer and fall, when the health care and immigration debates fused at Tea Party events and protests. One such event was an August town hall event in Raleigh, N.C. organized by DeGerolamo, NC Freedom's co-founder.

Two of the four invited speakers were prominent immigration restrictionists: William Gheen, head of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee (ALIPAC) and John Armor, a lawyer associated with the American Civil Rights Union.

On YouTube videos of the event, Gheen warns the Tea Partiers about Obama's "massive amnesty" plan to legalize undocumented immigrants, and both Gheen and Armor described the problem of "anchor babies."

Immigration restrictionists have long alleged immigrant mothers enter the country illegally to give birth on U.S. soil so that their children will have citizenship and eventually, through family reunification visas, be able to pass legal status to the rest of the family.

At the same Aug. 26 town hall, Ada Fisher, Republican National Commiteewoman for North Carolina, earned a loud round of applause for this statement criticizing federal laws requiring multilingual medical interpreters: "You cannot be one nation under God when everyone's speaking something different."

Not everyone agrees that Tea Party organizing has begun exerting a significant influence on the immigration debate at a national level.

Tamar Jacoby, a conservative who heads ImmigrationWorks USA, a pro-immigration business group, agrees that Tea Partiers may take up immigration in earnest in the future.

But for the time being, she sees the Tea Partiers still in a very early stage of organizing and far more zeroed-in on limited government and fiscal issues.

And the Tea Party movement's allies in the political establishment, Republicans like Armey of FreedomWorks and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, still have a chance to influence the course Tea Party activism will take on issues such as immigration, Jacoby said. "Leadership will matter. What Palin and Armey say will be very important."

Palin and Armey are hardly firebrands on the immigration issue.

Armey, as Jacoby pointed out, is an "old friend" of immigration reform. Armey has spoken out about making the system "more orderly" but "not more restrictive."

Palin's position on immigration is still hazy. In a recent interview on the Glenn Beck program she said, "I think Republicans, conservatives are at fault when we allow the other side to capture this immigration issue and try to turn this issue into something negative for Republicans," she said, according to a Fox News transcript.

Palin stressed immigration laws should be followed, but added, "We need to continue to be so welcoming."

Whatever the ultimate Tea Party effect is on immigration politics, candidates and elected officials often come to recognize there is a political cost to taking hard-line stances, said Stephen Fotopulos of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

Fotopulos cited the example of Harold Ford, Jr. who ran "sensationalist ads about being tough on illegal immigrants" when he ran for office in Tennessee. Now, Ford is campaigning for U.S. Senate in New York, where the immigrant vote is powerful.

"We will see those ads again, used against him," said Fotopulos.

(Photo of Tea Party protest by Sage Ross via Wikimedia Commons)