SOUTH ROYALTON -- The United States may be fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the activists who attended a recent meeting of the South Royalton chapter of the John Birch Society warn there's a critical battle being waged here at home. They claim the U.S. is threatened by illegal immigrants.
An estimated 11 million immigrants reside in the U.S. illegally; more than 2000 of them work on Vermont's dairy farms. Both the House and the Senate recently passed controversial -- and possibly irreconcilable -- bills proposing immigration reform.
On May 1, a million people nationwide, including more than 200 Vermonters, took to the streets to support illegal immigrants. Mayor Bob Kiss even suggested turning Burlington into a sanctuary city, where such persons would be safe from prosecution.
The anti-Communist JBS voices the flip side of that debate, supporting border fences, the deployment of troops to beef up security, and deportation of anyone who enters the U.S. illegally.
Founded in 1958, the JBS is best known for its opposition to the civil rights movement, and for its "Get the U.S. Out of the United Nations" campaign. The latter stance is explained in the history section of the JBS website: ". . . there is indeed a ruling elite -- operating in our federal government and permeating many of our commercial, social, educational and religious institutions -- laboring to merge the U.S. into a Soviet-style one-world tyranny under the United Nations."
Statements like that have alienated the JBS from mainstream conservatives, who consider it a radical fringe organization. The JBS has also been widely ridiculed and demeaned by left-wing cultural icons such as Bob Dylan, who penned the song, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues."
Its membership has waned over the years; there were once three chapters in Vermont, but now just one survives, with barely a dozen members, according to chapter leader Grant Lester Corwin II. Seven of them showed up for the Thursday night meeting in the South Royalton High School library.
But the JBS hopes to gain traction among Vermonters frustrated by illegal immigration. It's rallying its troops to oppose any kind of compromise on immigrant amnesty. Corwin brought Massachusetts-based JBS coordinator Harold Shurtleff to South Royalton to outline the society's campaign.
Corwin opened the meeting by playing "The Star Spangled Banner" on a piano, while the Birchers sang along. They then recited the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a prayer "in Christ's name," from JBS member Stuart Skrill. The group's motto, after all, is "Less government, more responsibility and -- with God's help -- a better world."
After the prayer, Corwin introduced Shurtleff. The tall, thin Massachusetts man opened with a couple redneck jokes a la Jeff Foxworthy, which seemed incongruous with his buttoned-down shirt and polka-dot tie.
Shurtleff complained that illegal immigration is ruining this country. The Senate bill, he said, is "a death wish." He urged the group to call their legislators, write letters to the editor, and circulate petitions to oppose it.
He affirmed that the JBS sympathizes with immigrants who arrive legally; he pointed out that his ancestors were immigrants, too -- they came from England in 1634. It's the illegals the JBS doesn't like, he explained.
Shurtleff spoke of gazing out of his Hyde Park window at the street below and seeing a crowd of foreigners. "It looks like our little shopping community has become a Third World marketplace," he lamented. "Do you want this to become a Third World country? Because that's where we're headed."
Shurtleff also dissed "Mexifornia," and Mexican president Vicente Fox -- "You know that guy is lying just by looking at him," he said.
Then he introduced "Trespassing Allowed," a video the JBS produced for its immigration reform campaign. The tape showed footage of dark-skinned people wading across a river and scurrying beneath a fence -- ostensibly crossing the border -- to an ominous soundtrack.
According to the JBS, the problem isn't just that illegal immigrants are living in this country; it's that they want to take over. "America is at risk of being transformed through invasion," boomed the deep-voiced narrator. The same voice charged that radical Aztlan revolutionaries are flocking to the Southwestern states in a bid to reclaim them as a tribal homeland. The film implies that this movement has widespread support among illegal immigrants.
The nonprofit Media Matters for America rebuts this argument, which has also been made by right-wing pundit Michelle Malkin. In a March 31 entry devoted to Malkin's Fox News appearance the day before, the Media Matters website cautions that this rhetoric is in fact more popular among white supremacists than among immigrants themselves.
And the conspiracy deepens -- ultimately, the villains in the JBS film aren't the revolutionaries at all, but the people allegedly behind them: organizations like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the Council on Foreign Relations. The film claims these groups seek to integrate the country "in a global Socialist regime."
After the film, Shurtleff insisted that members of the Council on Foreign Relations, a non-partisan international-issues think tank, seek through free-trade agreements to erase our borders, merge our military with that of Canada and Mexico, and destroy the U.S. Constitution. He pointed out that the CFR has infiltrated the Bush administration -- not surprising, since its diverse membership includes American scholars, businesspeople and politicians of all stripes who have experience or show promise in the field of international affairs.
At the conclusion of Shurtleff's presentation, Corwin grabbed a copy of Shadows of Power, a book about the Council on Foreign Relations that the JBS offers for sale. He encouraged the group to flip through the list of CFR members to identify its enemies.
"We have one right here in town," Corwin informed the crowd. He was referring to Maximillian Kempner, a committee chair of the Conservation Law Foundation and the former dean of Vermont Law School.
Reached by phone on Memorial Day, Kempner responded, "Immigration policy involves a number of interests: keeping our society and economy vibrant, protecting the rights of all within our borders, and enforcing the laws. It is appropriate that Congress is considering these issues. As for my being an 'enemy' because I am a member of the Council on Foreign Relations," he adds, "I assure you that I do not consider myself an enemy of any of my neighbors."
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