Keeping America Empty

By Hayes, Christopher | In These Times, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Keeping America Empty


Hayes, Christopher, In These Times


HOW ONE SMALL-TOWN CONSERVATIONIST LAUNCHED TODAY'S ANTI-IMMIGRATION MOVEMENT

AT THE NORTHERN TIP of Michigan's lower peninsula lies the quaint town of Petoskey, population 6,080. In late March, a thick white shelf of ice still covers Lake Michigan, and a few miles north, over the Mackinac Bridge, the Upper Peninsula appears as a grey tangle of virgin wilderness. This isn't the end of the world, residents say, but you can see it from here.

The town seems to have escaped much of the last four decades. Mom-and-pop stores and unassuming churches line its downtown, and there's hardly a chain restaurant in sight. People wear flag pins on their lapels, even when they're not running for office.

On the day I drive to Petoskey, the radio is buzzing with voices from the Great Immigration Debate: ranting talk show hosts, sermonizing senators and the chanting protests of thousands in Grand Rapids, a few hours south of Petoskey. Like hundreds of thousands of others, they are marching against House-passed legislation that would turn approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants into felons.

All the cacophony lacks is a mention of the one man who set much of this in motion 25 years ago, the man I had come to see: 72-year-old retired opthamologist John Tanton.

Tanton may not make headlines, but even a casual dusting of today's anti-immigration movement reveals his fingerprints everywhere. Turn on Lou Dobbs and you'll see experts from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the nation's oldest and most influential immigration restriction group, which Tanton founded in 1979. Scan the newspapers and you'll find Republican lawmakers reporting a tidal wave of calls from members of NumbersUSA, which Tanton cofounded. Watch the committee hearings on C-SPAN and you'll hear anti-immigration talking points lifted straight from the Center for Immigration Studies, another Tanton creation. And on and on.

Thirty years ago, "if you wanted to call some group and say, 'Tell me about immigration,' there was no phone number," recalls founding FAIR board member Otis Graham. Devin Burghart, who monitors the anti-immigration movement for the progressive Center for New Community, says that Tanton has done for immigration politics "what Pat Robertson did for the Christian Right. As a tactician, he's done a brilliant job."

Given that the movement he helped create now finds its base among conservative Republicans, you might expect John Tanton to be an unapologetic reactionary. You'd be wrong. He's a self-described progressive, ex-Sierra Club member, Planned Parenthood supporter and harsh critic of neoclassical economists. So I wanted to know: How did a whip-smart, mild-mannered farm boy committed to conserving the natural world end up seeding and nurturing a movement that now dispatches gun-toting vigilantes to patrol the border?

IN PERSON, TANTON hardly seems like a firebrand. He speaks softly, and carries himself with the reserved politeness of the small town doctor he was for 35 years. When I get to Petoskey at noon on a Monday, I find him in a Presbyterian church, where for the last 20 years his Great Books club has convened. Tanton briefly interrupts the discussion of Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes to introduce me, casually mentioning the magazine I write for, where I went to school and even what my major was. For a 72-year-old man, he sure knows his way around Google.

Tanton and his wife Mary Lou moved to Petoskey in 1964 after he finished medical school. The towns small clinic had an opening, and, particularly important, some of the most pristine wilderness in America was just minutes away. The couple quickly threw themselves into a variety of conservation causes.

A fundamental problem the nascent environmental movement identified was, in Tanton's words, that "the economic system is based on continual growth forever," which "in a finite world" isn't possible. …

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