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Non-profits now using SB1070 as fundraising tool

(Photo illustration by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

(Photo illustration by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has proven that tough immigration policies make it easy to raise cash for political campaigns, and Gov. Jan Brewer has shown that the same rule applies to raising money for legal defense of the state’s new immigration law.

But now, private-sector interests are getting wise as well.

At least two nonprofits have started raising money for tough-on-immigration causes, and both are tied to well-known political figures in the state.

GOP consultant Sean McCaffrey formed Ban Amnesty Now shortly after the governor signed SB 1070 this spring. The nonprofit group’s mission is to oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants and support tougher illegal immigration laws, although even McCaffrey admits the group’s specific role is still a bit murky.

In July, an Iowa-based nonprofit founded by former Iowa House Speaker Christopher Rants joined with the Rose Law Group and former gubernatorial candidate Buz Mills to raise money for Border Sheriffs, which operates a legal defense fund for Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever.

But critics say the Border Sheriffs group is raising money for an unneeded legal defense team and is nothing more than a public relations fund to promote its clients. After all, Brewer already has hired the largest law firm in Arizona to defend SB1070.

Ban Amnesty Now appears to have lofty goals, but the organization is still in its infancy and has yet to establish a meaningful role in the immigration debate.

Political insiders and public advocates say it can be difficult to tell how legitimate a nonprofit advocacy group is until it’s been active for a while. Some, such as the Tea Party Express, start with just a couple of consultants raising money and blossom into powerful forces. Others, however, have little impact, and some never really strive for the goals they espouse to raise money.

Critics of Ban Amnesty Now and Border Sheriffs said the groups were hatched to take advantage of the public’s frustration over illegal immigration.

“Clearly they have to strike while the iron’s hot. This is an issue that has polarized the country,” said Sen. Rebecca Rios, a Democrat from Apache Junction. “I don’t think that people are asking the bigger question — what is all this money ultimately going to change or do? I think they’re just playing on people’s emotions.”

For years, politicians in Arizona have been using get-tough-on-immigration platforms to boost their campaign fundraising. Some politicians consistently rely on that single issue. Arpaio, for instance, has raised more than $3 million this election cycle by making immigration his signature issue.

But the fervor to donate to immigration-related causes reached a new level earlier this year when the state’s new immigration law was challenged in court. People from across the country started sending money — unsolicited — to the Governor’s Office, along with notes to explain that the money should be used in her efforts to defend the law.

Not all of the contributors were specific about what the money should be used for, and some left the decision up to Brewer.

“Anything she wanted. I don’t care if she bought dinner with it,” said John McMillen, an Indiana resident who sent $50 to the Governor’s Office in late April, before the legal defense fund was established.

After money started pouring in, the Governor’s Office set up a legal defense fund, which to date has drawn total contributions of $3.6 million from more than 40,000 individuals across the U.S.

McCaffrey said immigration has become a wedge issue for many voters across the country, which makes it easier for anti-illegal-immigration groups such as his to raise money — even if the goals are fairly nondescript.

“We have the challenge that we’re a little bit ambiguous. We oppose amnesty for illegal aliens. Fifty-nine percent of America goes, ‘Yeah, so do we. There you go. You’ve got my support,’” McCaffrey said.

BAN AMNESTY NOW

Ban Amnesty Now’s official headquarters is a shared office space in a silo-shaped, glass-encased business tower near Tempe Town Lake. But the group’s nerve center is McCaffrey’s home office, where he spends most of his time blasting e-mails to supporters and soliciting donations.

Right now, McCaffrey has nothing to pitch but ideas and goals. His group, which became active in late May, has done nothing significant to affect immigration policy. It has one employee, no track record and a mission statement that focuses on opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants.

The group, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, also benefits from privacy protections that allow it to withhold donors’ names and fundraising totals. McCaffrey refused to provide that information to the Arizona Capitol Times.

“Everything that’s not going to my salary or rent or maintenance or development of our website, etc., that’s all spent on communications, not just with our members but with the public at large on the issues of border security, amnesty and other related issues,” McCaffrey said.

Brooks Jackson, director of Factcheck.org, a group dedicated to exposing dishonesty in politics, said contributing to political nonprofit groups that aren’t required to disclose fundraising information can be risky because they are largely unaccountable and it’s difficult to figure out where the money is going.

“It’s the kind of organization that has been subject to abuse, in my experience,” Jackson said. “If it’s a 501(c)(4), it’s a black box.”

McCaffrey, a former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, said he wants Ban Amnesty Now to steer immigration policy by forming a “grassroots army” of financial contributors and volunteers that could be mobilized when major illegal immigration-related bills go before Congress.

If McCaffrey raises enough money, he said the group may run TV ads urging people to contribute to Brewer’s fund or get involved in other ways. He said the group could expand beyond its 501(c)(4) status at some point and form a separate committee to endorse candidates.

“My goal is to make us four to five times what we are,” McCaffrey said.

McCaffrey has enlisted Sen. Russell Pearce and former U.S. Sen. Tom Tancredo, now a candidate for Colorado governor, to serve as national co-chairs for the group.

So far, McCaffrey has been in a sort of staging mode where publicity and fundraising are necessary to build a base  and establish political clout. He said has more than 1.2 million people on his e-mail list.

Earlier this year, the group launched an online petition urging Major League Baseball to keep its 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix despite calls to move it in protest to Arizona’s immigration law. To hype the petition, the group handed out baseballs signed by Arpaio.

McCaffrey said 70,000 people signed the petition, though he hasn’t heard back from Major League Baseball since he submitted it.

In one of the group’s online donation drives, it claimed to be “joining the legal fight to save Arizona and SB1070, and we need your help.” But the group is not involved in any of the lawsuits filed against the law.

McCaffrey said he doesn’t believe the site is misleading and doesn’t think donors expect their money to go toward legal defense of the law. The goal, he said, it to raise the judiciary’s awareness of public opinion on the matter.

“We haven’t had a single contribution-return request yet,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any misconceptions about what we’re doing.”

BORDER SHERIFFS

All 15 county sheriffs and county attorneys were named as defendents in the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit against SB1070, but their names were included on the legal documents as a formality and most local officials were content to let Brewer take the lead in defending the law.

However, Dever, Cochise County sheriff, decided to play a more active role than the Cochise County Attorney’s Office can afford in both the ACLU case and the marquee lawsuit filed against the state by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Dever is not named as a defendant in the federal government’s lawsuit, but he is one of many parties that have asked to be admitted as a friend of the defense. To help him do that, the Border Sheriffs group stepped in and began raising money to hire a private attorney.

“Her (Brewer’s) fund is to defend the law, and what we’re doing is we’re defending the lawmen,” said Mills, Border Sheriffs chairman. “Everybody in Arizona is in the crosshairs.”

The fund also sought to represent Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, though the Pinal County Attorney’s Office rejected the offer, over Babeu’s protests, and opted to defend all county agencies itself.

But several attorneys and a constitutional law expert said county sheriffs have no active role in the lawsuit and it’s not necessary for them to do anything to defend themselves. They said the governor’s attorneys will control all aspects of the defense regardless of whether Dever is allowed to play an active role in the lawsuit.

David Selden, an attorney who led the fight against Arizona’s employer sanctions law, said Dever’s actions may boost his public profile but appear to be meaningless from a legal standpoint.

“I don’t think any individual sheriff will be able to come in and say, I know something the largest law firm in the state and the Governor’s Office doesn’t know,” said Selden, of the Cavanaugh Law Firm. “It has to be political.”

Attorney Daniel Barr, an SB1070 opponent who has filed briefs in support of the ACLU’s case, said Dever and the Rose Law Group won’t have any impact on the case unless they have a unique argument regarding the law’s constitutionality.

“It’s all sort of political theater — help, help, help, we’re under attack,” said Barr, of the firm Perkins Coie Brown & Bain.

Jordan Rose, of the Rose Law Group, said the Border Sheriffs group has spent about $125,000 — nealry everything it has raised — to represent Dever, with the money primarily going to attorneys’ fees.

The group’s attorneys are asking for permission for Dever to file a brief in the Department of Justice case, which goes before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Nov. 1.

Friend-of-the-court briefs are common in high-profile court cases, but they usually have little or no impact. More than three dozen parties have sought permission to submit friend-of-the-court briefs in the SB1070 case, including other states, members of Congress, advocacy groups and foreign countries.

Paul Bender, a constitutional law professor at Arizona State University, said political grandstanding is a common motivation for friend-of-the-court briefs, though he said he didn’t know enough about Dever’s arguments to pass judgment.

“Most amicus briefs are irrelevant,” Bender said. “It doesn’t help to have someone do the same thing and say, ‘Me too.’”

Dever said his involvement is meant primarily to highlight the “practical applications” of SB1070 and give the courts insight from his unique experience as a border sheriff, insight that he says Brewer’s attorneys won’t be able to present.

“There were about 10 times I wanted to stand up and say, ‘Stop, you guys are missing the whole boat here,’” Dever said, referring to the July 22 hearings on SB1070. “The practical application of this law is being lost in the legal wrangling.”

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