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NumbersUSA: For longtime backer of hard-line immigration measures, the time is now

These are heady days for Roy Beck and NumbersUSA.

In the past year, the hardline immigration policies they've long championed have gained headlines and support. Numbers USA, which pushes for cuts in both legal and illegal immigration, reducing family-based visas and other restrictive measures, has gained exposure of its message from one of the brightest spots on the world stage.

“[T]o have a president that talks about immigration as much as this one does, it moves your issue much further to the front of the line,” says Beck, who founded the group in 1997.

NumbersUSA’s tough message puts it at odds with organizations funded by bigger names, including the Libre Initiative, which this spring launched a highly-publicized seven-figure ad campaign in support of Dreamers. The groups stand for opposing wings of the Republican party, with Libre representing the more moderate business lobby.

Libre has deep pockets: Two of its largest benefactors are billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.

But Beck's organization has been able to spread its message widely using something simple and cheap: Facebook's Share button. And in pure dollar terms, NumbersUSA has seen its revenue increase threefold from 2006 to 2016, allowing its advertising budget to stretch into the millions.

The group's social media strategy has met with stunning success. The NumbersUSA Facebook page's 7.2 million "likes" is nearly twice as many as the pages of both major parties combined. Their direct Facebook audience exceeds those of MSNBC, Ivanka Trump, Major League Baseball — and the main page for the Libre Initiative, which has only 861,000 likes.

“We can reach tens of millions of people by Facebook without spending any money ,” Beck said. “They distribute these things on their own.”

That brings in donations, of course, though much of the funding for NumbersUSA comes via an estimated 1.5 million email subscribers, according to Beck. In FY 2017, the lobbying arm of the group had about $1.2 million in donations and other revenue; a separate charitable arm of NumbersUSA brought in another $7.5 million.

Though Facebook and email have been the organization’s go-to ways to get the word out, for a current ad campaign, Beck has taken out pages in The Hill, Politico and National Review, among other outlets, and aired ads on CNN and Fox News.

NumbersUSA favored the House immigration bill that went down to defeat on June 21; Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte's bill contained a couple of the group's top priorities, including mandated use of the E-verify system by employers and the end of family-based visas.

The bill that failed on June 27, by contrast, was scorned by the group as an "amnesty" bill.

And NumbersUSA wants lawmakers to know it is watching. While it doesn't explicitly endorse individual House and Senate candidates, it has others ways of wielding political influence: Like some other advocacy groups, it distributes election guides, assigning members of Congress letter grades for their individual voting records on immigration.

In the current Congress, 97 percent of Democrats in the House and Senate have an “F” or “F-minus.”

Given the positions it takes on an issue that's historically sensitive, NumbersUSA was controversial from the get-go. It hasn't been formally labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but the center has denounced it for years, in no small part due to the group's connections to John Tanton. Tanton, a retired Michigan ophthalmologist, was named the “racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement” by the SPLC, which also called his quarterly journal, The Social Contract, the work of "race-baiting" white nationalists.

Beck was Washington editor of the journal.

Wendy Feliz, communications director of the American Immigration Council, which advocates for undocumented immigrants, maintains that NumbersUSA and other Tanton-connected groups use fear to sell their ideology.

“Fear is a powerful motivator,” Feliz said, “and I do think they worked very hard to make [immigration] a partisan issue. And they’ve raised money by making it a partisan issue and by inciting a sense of fear in the public.”

Without fail, the organization’s revenue spikes whenever Congress feuds about immigration. IRS filings gathered by ProPublica show that, after totaling less than $300,000 in FY 2006, contributions to NumbersUSA’s lobbying arm quadrupled to $1.2 million when the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 was introduced.

The bill, which would have provided a path to citizenship for 12 million undocumented immigrants, failed in the Senate. NumbersUSA was profiled in The New York Times a month later and contributions to that part of the organization have dipped below $1 million only once in the decade since.

A second arm of the group, the NumbersUSA Education and Research Foundation (ERF), also had slim funding until close to the end of the last decade. Contributions doubled to $8 million in the run-up to the 2008 election and neared $10 million during the 2013 immigration debate.

Neither part of the organization is required to release the names of its individual or corporate donors, but some foundations that give to ERF are known. It relies on sizable grants from the Pittsburgh-based Colcom Foundation, founded in the mid-1990s by Cordelia Scaife May, an heir to the Mellon banking fortune. May's primary concerns were "the major causes and consequences of overpopulation and its impact on environmental sustainability,” according to Colcom's website.

Beck says his organization’s hotly-debated 1996 “gumball” video — in which Beck used gumballs to illustrate the scale of immigration by the world’s poor to the U.S. — and Beck’s book from the same year, “The Case Against Immigration,” caught May’s attention.

May died in 2005, but the pipeline remains open: Colcom has given ERF more than $30 million since then. Colcom’s grant of $6.78 million to ERF in FY 2016 accounted for almost a quarter of Colcom’s grants and more than half of ERF’s revenue that year, its highest-grossing on record.

Colcom vice president of philanthropy John Rohe did not respond to requests for comment.

Not long before the Libre Initiative's recent campaign started up, NumbersUSA also conceded some support for Dreamers, in Goodlatte's Securing America’s Future Act, which it supported because of tough measures the bill, which was voted down, also contained. It was the first time the organization has endorsed what some consider an "amnesty" proposal.

That's about where similarities between the positions of the two groups stop. And NumbersUSA's more draconian vision — which favors restricting birthright citizenship and lowering legal migration limits to 500,000 per year, can be a tough sell: Witness the public outcry that led the Trump administration to reverse course on separating families who cross the southern border seeking asylum.

But that doesn't deter Beck, especially not now, with the wind at his back.

“In the end, groups like ours which are public interest groups have the advantage of having lots of members,” says Beck. “You leverage that kind of goodwill among the public, that really magnifies every dollar that’s spent.”

And those dollars keep rolling in. “The more that Congress is dealing with immigration, the higher the funding,” Beck says.