Guilt by Association: The Most Influential Anti-Immigration Network in America Tries to Convert Liberals to Its Cause

By Weisberg, Jessica | The American Prospect, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Guilt by Association: The Most Influential Anti-Immigration Network in America Tries to Convert Liberals to Its Cause


Weisberg, Jessica, The American Prospect


A few years ago, anti-immigration ads began popping up in a number of progressive magazines, including this one. The ads displayed an environmental wasteland and suggested that immigrants were somehow the cause--one showed an image of a congested highway with an adjoining paragraph about how immigration contributes to commuter traffic.

The ads were purchased by a network of anti-immigration organizations, all of them with ties to a man named John Tanton. According to the Center for New Community, which monitors the white nationalist movement, Tanton has fostered over a dozen groups that work to reduce immigration. Six of these organizations, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), have been cataloged as =hate groups" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but Tanton doesn't seem bothered by his critics. He even framed a copy of the center's 2002 investigation of him (titled "The Puppeteer") and hung it in his office.

Tanton is not the financier of this network--his pockets only go so deep--but he could safely be called its architect. In 1985, for instance, he decided that the movement required an "independent" think tank, and shortly thereafter the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) was founded. Otis Graham, an old friend of Tanton's, was named chair of the board. ("I'm a great believer in cronyism," Tanton has said, only somewhat facetiously.) The center remained under FAIRs umbrella for only six months; it seceded quickly enough that barely a trace of their former connection remains. Devin Burghart, a civil-rights activist who writes frequently about the anti-immigration movement, has said that Tanton has done for immigration politics "what Pat Robertson did for the Christian right. As a tactician, he's done a brilliant job."

A retired ophthalmologist, Tanton lives in Petoskey, Michigan, with his wife, Mary Lou. He has a ho-hum manner, referring to himself as a "farm boy," and waxing poetic about his backyard beekeeping operation. ("It raises interesting questions about the human enterprise," Tanton has said of the beehive.) He views people as primarily a nuisance and thinks that there should be far fewer of them. Before he founded FAIR in 1979, Tanton spent his free time on environmentalist initiatives, particularly those concerned about overpopulation. In the 1970s, he was president of Zero Population Growth and chair of his local Sierra Club chapter's population committee. But these days, his many affiliated organizations have few ties to the environmentalist community. FAIR publishes reports about the environmental impact of immigration once, maybe twice, a year; other groups will hold an event on the topic during slow news cycles.

Tanton's brand depends on a light touch. With few exceptions, such as FAIR, where he remains on the board, and The Social Contract, a quarterly magazine he founded in 1990, his name isn't attached to his initiatives. This allows the groups not to be burdened by his reputation, or one another's. Numbers USA, which is led by a longtime colleague of Tanton's, can present itself as the gentler, more liberal arm of the immigration-restriction movement, while The Social Contract invites well-known conservatives and white nationalists to its annual workshops. This way, when they work together it appears like a magnanimous bipartisan effort, rather than what it is: a collaborative decades in the making.

Each of the organizations under Tanton's umbrella have concluded, perhaps not independently, that immigration should be reduced from almost a million people a year to less than 300,000, a return to pre-1965 immigration levels, before Congress abolished "national origins" quotas. They agree, too, that children born in the United States to undocumented parents should not be given citizenship--the Fourteenth Amendment notwithstanding. In addition to the power of the network, many of these groups are influential on their own; Numbers USA has a million members, and the CIS distributes its reports, according to its current director Mark Krikorian, "to every office in Capitol Hill. …

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