Conflict

How an environmental lobbyist became an influential anti-refugee blogger

Ann Corcoran speaks in the YouTube video she recorded for The Center for Security Policy, a controveral far right think tank founded by Frank Gaffney.

Ann Corcoran speaks in the YouTube video she recorded for The Center for Security Policy, a controveral far right think tank founded by Frank Gaffney.

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Every morning at 5:30, a 65-year-old woman gets up in her small farm in Maryland to make coffee, and then proceeds to take to her keyboard to rail against refugees, Muslim immigrants and the what she calls the existential threat "creeping sharia law" poses to the United States.

And then, once she's done, she sets out to complete the day's chores: shoveling manure, feeding the horses, raking hay or mowing the fields.

Ann Corcoran is good at what she does, and she is as dedicated to her blog, Refugee Resettlement Watch, as she is to her farm. While her writing can be harsh in tone — she uses words like "infiltration," "invasion" or "seeding" to describe Muslim immigrants — in the the two times I spoke with her for this story, she came across as both earnest and self-deprecating.

Her work has turned heads on both sides of the political spectrum.

If you want to understand the rise of anti-refugee sentiment in the United States, studying the rise of Ann Corcoran isn't a bad place to start.

Last May, Corcoran was invited to speak at a conference on border security in Iowa organized by controversial conservative operative Frank Gaffney, who is now a national security adviser to Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. The advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center called Gaffney "one of America's most notorious Islamophobes." 

Corcoran isn't one for public speaking, but she went to Gaffney's event anyway. At the conference, she had the chance to speak to Donald Trump — just for a few minutes, she notes — about the dangers that she claims refugees, Muslim refugees in particular, present to the country.

When she started her blog nearly a decade ago, she didn't imagine she'd end up briefing the Republican front runner for president, doing interviews with Fox News or recording a YouTube video that has more than 2 million views. But her dedication to the issue — she has written more than 7,000 posts since 2007 — has helped make her an influential figure among groups that oppose the federal refugee resettlement program across the country. The recently increased notoriety of her blog, of course, has a lot to do with what's happened in the last year.

"It's only getting attention now because the Syrian thing has freaked people out," she says in her typical, matter-of-fact tone.

And while, with her short gray hair and tight smile, she may look the part of a librarian or someone's retired aunt, Ann Corcoran also freaks some people out.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has also written about Corcoran, noting her increased politicalization and influence on the far right. "In recent years, the conflict in Syria and last summer's surge in the number of children fleeing violence in Central America and coming to the US has pushed the issue of refugees into the spotlight. And Corcoran's blog, which focuses on that issue, has increasingly attracted both anti-Muslim groups and anti-immigrant groups who see her work as a crucial part of their agenda," they wrote last summer.

Her singular focus has also caught the attention of the nonprofit groups contracted by the US State Department to help resettle refugees. In 2013, Melanie Nezer, director of policy and advocacy at HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit and refugee resettlement agency, noted the influence of Corcoran's site in a report on the challenges facing refugee resettlement in local communities, writing that "Many of the posts express disdain for the refugee resettlement program, particularly the resettlement of Muslim refugees, along with anti-Muslim views."

That description closely matches how Corcoran describes her own views. There are two major themes to her blog. One is that the refugee resettlement program is an example of Big Government imposing its will on small communities, who need to be better informed and have more say in the process. If it were up to her, the entire refugee program would be junked and the third-party contractors who resettle refugees eliminated. The other consistent argument, the more visceral one, is that any increase in the Muslim population of the US pushes the US closer to Sharia, or Islamic law. So, she says, Muslim immigration to America must be stopped.

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"When we reach a certain population level, there is a push for various aspects of Sharia law, where it is small stuff, like wanting halal food at the local food bank for example. That's all the beginning of a push toward Sharia law," she says. "It seems like a little thing to some people, but that's how I see it. I can't give you some sort of absolute logical explanation for it, but that is the way I see it. The threat to our way of life. Our Western culture."

All that's in keeping with someone who has been a diehard conservative for years. But Corcoran didn't always think this way.

She grew up a Democrat in a small town in central New Jersey, with a mom from Germany and a dad from Ireland. She has a bachelor's degree in wildlife biology from Rutgers and a masters in environmental studies from Yale. For five years, from 1975 to 1980, she worked in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist for the National Audubon Society.

And her relationship with race and immigration becomes more complicated when you consider this fact about her family life: In addition to having two children of their own, she and her husband adopted two children from Vietnam, a boy and a girl. Both are in their 20s now. Her adopted daughter is an officer in the US Navy.

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"The only reason I mention my Vietnamese children is to make the point that I don't mind people from other countries coming to live here. I mean, my goodness, we brought people from other countries to our home, we raised them, we gave them college educations," she says.

So how did a liberal, first-generation American and professional environmentalist come to be a Trump-supporting, vehemently anti-Muslim blogger who opposes "liberal" multiculturalism?

It started with a conflict with the feds over farmland.

Corcoran and her husband bought their farm in 1985. She had left lobbying to focus on raising her children and also did charity work to help retired military and police horses.

Part of what attracted the Corcorans to the farm was its history. That farmhouse was built in 1832 and it was near the Civil War battlefield of Antietam. However, in 1989, a dispute began between local landowners, the Park Service and the state over how best to preserve the landmark.

The details are a little Byzantine, and the back-and forth went on for about six years. The farm owners eventually got what they wanted when development rights to their lands were sold to a state trust created to persevere farmland. What's important, though, in terms of understanding Corcoran, is that it reshaped how she viewed the federal government. She saw herself as a local landowner fighting an effort by big government that was allied with big business to impose its will on a small rural community.

The experience turned her into an activist. She helped form a landowners advocacy group, "Save Historic Antietam with Responsible Policies" (SHARP), and learned how to use Freedom of Information Act requests. In a precursor to her blogging days, she also started an old-fashioned, envelop-and-stamp newsletter called "Land Rights Letter."

"I was objecting to the federal government having that much control over our future. At that point in time I was thinking, our kids are going to grow up, they're going to live here, and this is going to be our family farm. ... I didn't want the federal government to have that much control," she says.

After that dispute settled down, Corcoran stayed clear of politics for a while to focus on her family and her charity work. It might have stayed that way had the Virginia Council of Churches not attempted to open up a refugee resettlement office in nearby Hagerstown, Maryland, and if a moment of linguistic confusion hadn't led a local paramedic to mistake a Burundian women's case of morning sickness for possible Ebola.

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Ann Corcoran got wind that refugees were being resettled in Hagerstown in 2006 before the local media ever reported it. One of her friends was teaching English language classes to refugees and complained about the tough conditions for refugees. Their housing was in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood and they had inadequate winter clothes and bedding, her friend said. As Corcoran dug into the issues, it bothered her that the government doesn't resettle refugees directly but instead contracts that task out to specialized agencies, most of which are faith-based nonprofits.

"That to me was such a shock, to learn that the federal govern was pouring so much money into these contractors. The contractors are putting on their white hats of quasi-humanitarianism, when it fact, it isn't all about humanitarianism. There is a lot of money involved. There are a lot of people behind it," she says.

Her efforts to get local media to cover the refugees fell short until the incident with the Burundi woman in October. As local media reported, an emergency crew was called to the woman's house and, lacking an interpreter, they feared that her illness could be a communicable disease. This led to a scary scene for the small city's residents: A decontamination tent was set up right in the middle of downtown, a street was closed off and several African refugees were put into quarantine. It was an over reaction. The woman was pregnant and just had severe morning sickness. Still, refugees were in the media spotlight for the first time.

Now Corcoran had a platform — and she knew how to use it.

Downtown Hagerstown's southbound Potomac Street in November 2007.

Downtown Hagerstown's southbound Potomac Street in November, 2007.

Corcoran again played the role of a small town activist fighting an intrusion of Big Government and its allies in her rural community. Except now, instead of fighting government and developers for land, she took on government and nonprofits for the "dumping of third-world cultures on communities that are unsuspecting," she says.

It wasn't about the fear of some dangerous and different other. "I argued from the very beginning," says Corcoran, "if they can come to any town in America and put all the facts on the table for the community to discuss — like where are they going to work, do we have an industry here that needs these workers, how much subsidized housing do we have, what's our school system, do we have enough capacity in our school system? — then I would be OK with that."

Just like before, Corcoran was successful. A year of activism led to a climactic town meeting after which the main government contractor, Church World Services, ended its contract with its subcontractor, the Virginia Council of Churches, thereby closing the refugee office in Hagerstown. CWS told local media that the VCC program didn't provide adequate services for the refugees. And the pastor running the local office in town admitted he could have done a better job communicating with residents about the arrival of the refugees.

Corcoran wasn't finished though. Soon afterward, she launched her blog to fight refugee resettlement in other communities.

And then she made it personal.

You can draw a straight line from Corcoran's farmland activism to her leading the charge against refugee resettlement in Hagerstown. Some of the same issues surrounding local decision making and government transparency applied. What's not clear is where the personal animus against refugees now evident in her blog comes from.

Take for instance a post she wrote in March about a group of ISIS-supporting hackers allegedly posting the names and addresses of 36 police officers in Minnesota. About 20 Somali youths in the state have joined ISIS, but they come from a population of about 25,000 and Somali community leaders have formed a partnership with the local district attorney and law enforcement to prevent youths from becoming radicalized. But Corcoran blames the so-called "kill list" on Somali youth generally.

"We raised these Somali ‘youths' with our money (taxpayer dollars) and this is what we get!" she writes.

"I think it is just demonizing a category of people," says Melanie Nezer, of HIAS. "Refugees are people. They come from different places. They are individuals. The history of the resettlement program shows that the vast, vast majority of them have a positive impact in the US. They send their kids to school. They get jobs. They integrate. They become American."

Nezer says she welcomes debate about refugee resentment, but what concerns her about Corcoran is her "us versus them" dehumanizing tone. "There is no indication of any compassion. There is a lot of very incendiary language, about people who are being painted with a very broad brush, that doesn't seem fair," she says.

When I pressed Corcoran on this point, I talked to her about Somalis I know personally and the Muslim students in my daughter's class. I wanted to show her why, on a personal level, her claim that "that's what we get," referring to Somali youth and ISIS in Minnesota, didn't seem reflective of the community where I live.

She interrupted me (politely, as always) saying she didn't want to "go there," that she understood I was proud of my daughter's class just like she was proud of her daughter. She said she didn't want her work to be personal or emotional, but instead focused on government transparency, accountability and policy.

But why, I asked, is your blog at times so personal and emotional? Why all the visceral crime stories without including context, like crime statistics? Corcoran said she's just trying to "balance out" what she sees as overly favorable coverage of refugees in the mainstream media.

"You know why it's full of emotion? Because I want to play the game the left plays. That is the game the left plays all the time. The playing on the emotion."

Right now, her hope is that Trump is elected. "Otherwise, people like me, who really care about this issue, might as well go retire on a beach somewhere," she says. And in the meantime, she is going to keep posting. She doesn't plan on changing her approach.

"Conservatives tend to want to use logical arguments and facts and figures, all of that, and what I am saying is that we're going to have to play the political game that the left uses all the time, which is this emotional story idea," she says. "We can play the story game, too."

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