The anti-immigration activist Tommy Robinson asked wealthy American backers to help him claim asylum in the US, the Guardian has learned, while his team approached the Republican senator Ted Cruz’s office about securing a visa.
Court documents released in the US show the English Defence League founder discussed moving his family to Texas in 2019, where he would earn money by speaking at venues “including evangelical churches”.
Such was the influence of Robinson’s supporters that they asked advisers to Cruz, the Republican former presidential candidate, for legal advice on securing an extended visa for “someone who needs protection”.
Terry Giles, a prominent American businessman and friend of Cruz, told the Guardian he asked the senator’s office for assistance but did not disclose that the visa was for Robinson.
Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, remains one of the UK’s highest-profile rightwing campaigners despite being banned from mainstream social media and beset by legal problems. The Luton-born activist has described people who fled the Syrian war as “fake refugees” who should be “sent back”.
Documents released by a US district court in Pennsylvania shed light on how Robinson’s influence extends to high levels in the US, where conservative groups have previously funded his activities in Britain.
The 38-year-old has received hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations from wealthy international backers as well as ordinary supporters. He recently claimed to be bankrupt at the high court in London, where he is due to defend himself in a libel trial later this month.
A record of a meeting between Robinson and his most influential supporters at the Four Seasons hotel in London in early 2019 describes Giles, 72, as “actively working with Senator Cruz to advance Tommy’s visa”.
The Houston-based businessman, who previously ran the presidential campaign for Republican Ben Carson in 2015, was “mainly concerned with bringing Tommy and his family to Houston, by getting a visa; getting them into a new house/school/life; and getting him on to the speaking circuit, including evangelical churches,” according to the memo.
Giles confirmed the account of the meeting, which was also attended by Robinson, his solicitors, a Ukip adviser, the rightwing Canadian pundit Ezra Levant and Lisa Barbounis, an executive for the Middle East Forum, a conservative US thinktank that donated tens of thousands of pounds towards Robinson’s legal fees and rallies.
He said Robinson asked him to explore the potential to move his family to the US due to “serious threats to his family”. He added: “This was the way [Robinson] described it: if things get worse and my family is in danger, what can I do to help them? Is there anything in the United States that could assist in that regard?
“We were just looking into the possibilities so that I could advise them of all of the different things that they could be looking at, including applying for asylum.”
Robinson, who publicly appealed to Donald Trump to grant him political asylum, lost interest in moving to the US “once he realised that he couldn’t go back to the UK if he declared asylum”, according to the files.
Barbounis said in her memo that Robinson’s contempt of court case “impedes the visa process” and added: “We all agreed that to get the outstanding charges from hanging over Tommy’s head and to advance our collective plans for him in the US he should try to settle [the case]. Tommy seemed reluctant but said he would think it over.”
The documents show the Middle East Forum was central to Robinson’s efforts to obtain a visa. Barbounis told her boss, Daniel Pipes, in January 2019 that “Cruz’s guy called Tommy yesterday and said they were discussing it next week”. Cruz’s office said it had no records of helping Robinson secure a visa.
Pipes replied that “we need a patron in the USG [US government]” and suggested enlisting Paul Gosar, a Republican congressman. Barbounis replied that Gosar was “willing but didn’t have enough recognition with the embassy” and that she had contacted Sebastian Gorka, previously an adviser to the then president, Donald Trump, who had “said he would pass it along. Nothing materialised.”
Gorka did not dispute being approached about a visa for Robinson. He said it was “an amusing story” for a “gutter rag like the Commie Guardian”.
Giles and Barbounis appear to have been the main advocates for moving Robinson to the US, according to the documents.
Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum, told the Guardian he opposed Robinson moving to the US and did not want to facilitate it but that he had previously wanted the activist to visit to discuss free speech issues. He added: “In retrospect, MEF regrets funding the events supporting Mr Robinson. Accordingly, we have cut all relations with him.”
The files were released by the court as part of a dispute between the Middle East Forum and several former employees regarding sexual harassment allegations, which it denies.