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The forgotten trailblazer of the anti-immigrant movement who paved the way for Donald Trump

John Tanton created a network of anti-immigration groups that have influenced the new president's agenda, even if those organizations have distanced themselves from their founding father because of his reputation as a racist.
21 Mar 2017 – 06:24 PM EDT
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John Tanton, father of the modern anti-immigration movement Crédito:

John Tanton’s close associates say he is in poor health due to Parkinson's and that he lives in a nursing home in Michigan – far from his former circles of influence. Years ago he stopped giving interviews and is largely unknown to the general public. But the octogenarian’s legacy has gained even more notoriety in the days of President Donald Trump.

Almost four decades ago, when he was an ophthalmologist in the remote coastal town of Petoskey, Michigan, Tanton began laying the foundations of the modern anti-immigration movement. The network of organizations he created in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s would go on to play a prominent role in the immigration legislative agenda and pave the way for the rise of candidates at all levels who spoke out against immigrants.

Today, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and NumbersUSA remain the most prominent conservative anti-immigration organizations in Washington. The first is dedicated to lobbying, the second is a think-tank while NumbersUSA mobilizes supporters.

With Trump in government these organizations now enjoy greater access and influence. They are smaller than the all-purpose conservative groups close to Trump, such as the Heritage Foundation. But they are unrivaled when it comes to immigration issues. Last month, leaders from FAIR, CIS and NumbersUSA met with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, just as the agency overseeing deportations is designing its new strategy.

Key people close to Trump have ties to the groups. Attorney General Jeff Sessions frequently attends events hosted by FAIR and Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State and a Trump immigration adviser, is one of the lawyers for the Immigration Law Reform Institute (IRLI), the legal arm of FAIR.

Both during his election campaign and since he's been president, Trump has cited CIS and FAIR studies on the alleged threat of immigrants to jobs and security. Trump's immigration policies appear to follow nearly point-by-point the list of 79 suggestions CIS published in April of last year, as the Daily Beast pointed out.

These ideas include the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office, reduced benefits for foreigners, and an expansion of accelerated deportations for foreigners who have been in the country for less than two years (under President Barak Obama these express procedures only apply to those that have been in the country less than two weeks).

But it is striking that the father of the movement, which is often called "the Tanton network," has fallen into oblivion. The reason, besides his illness, is that Tanton gained a bad reputation for his racist ideas.

Mark Krikorian, CEO of CIS since 1995, says that Tanton's influence on the network he created has been magnified as part of a campaign to discredit the group by portraying him as the evil ideologue in the shadows.

"His role in reality is that of a Johny Appleseed, suggesting ideas and putting them into motion and then moving to the next thing," Krikorian told Univision News. He said Tanton was only one of a group of founders of CIS. Tanton had founded FAIR in 1979 and six years later CIS was created under its umbrella before gaining independent status six months later, he said.

Tanton remained on the FAIR board until April 2011 when he stepped down after a lengthy article in The New York Times outlined his racist views.

Only two years earlier, the group's president, Dan Stein, had praised Tanton as a "renaissance man."

FAIR emphasizes on its website that the group believes "in respect for basic human rights and the dignity of all those involved."

"We also believe that immigration policies should not be based on favoritism towards any person or discrimination based on race, creed, color, religion, gender or nationality,", the website adds.

FAIR is still considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an organization that monitors extremism in the United States.

"Although FAIR maintains a veneer of legitimacy that has allowed its principals to testify in Congress and lobby the federal government, this veneer hides much ugliness," says the group's profile on the SPLC website.


Born in Detroit in 1934, Tanton is a descendant of immigrants who came to the U.S. from England and Germany in the 19th century. Originally his activism focused on the environment and population control. Though he remained in his small hometown of Petoskey, he won a seat on the national board of the Sierra Club and Zero Population Growth in the 70s.

Tanton was a voracious and self-taught reader with multiple interests. It was his preoccupation with overpopulation that aroused his interest in immigration.

His supporters call him a visionary for warning of the danger of mass immigration at a time when the movement for population control focused on reducing births. John Rohe, who wrote a biography of Tanton and his wife Mary Lou, points out that an 1975 essay by Tanton, called "International Migration," was the work that kicked off the immigration reform movement.

"The concerns anticipated by Dr. Tanton in his 1975 essay have materialized," Rohe wrote in an email to Univision News. "In other words, his 'key' opened the door to a look into the future."

Tanton's conversion came as the country increasingly became a melting pot. In 1965, the U.S. had abandoned the quota system of immigration that privileged people from white majority countries. Initially, Tanton did not address the racial issue and focused his activism on warning of the risks that immigration posed for the environment.

For that reason, when he created FAIR in 1979, he attracted the support of such liberals as financier Warren Buffett and Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. Later, as he drove his movement toward cultural and racial issues, many turned their backs on him.

FAIR soon began to use messages that were more effective in grabbing public attention by asserting that an excess of immigration contributed to the rise of crime, lack of jobs for Americans, and a cultural deterioration. In 1983, he created U.S. English to promote English as an official language.

His hatred for Latinos was revealed when The Arizona Republic newspaper published a memorandum that Tanton had sent to a group of white nationalists before a brainstorming session in California in 1986. In his memo, he appeared alarmed by the higher fertility rate among Latinos and denigrated them using stereotypes: "Will Latin American migrants bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe)?"

He also predicted a kind of apartheid for the future of the state: "In California of 2030, the non-Hispanic Whites and Asians will own the property, have the good jobs and education, speak one language and be mostly Protestant and 'other.' The Blacks and Hispanics will have the poor jobs, will lack education, own little property, speak another language and will be mainly catholic. Will there be strength in this diversity?"

In public, Tanton had tried to maintain some restraint so that his movement was not equated with the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist groups of the past. But the leaks damaged his public image. At that time, it came to light that the Pioneer Fund – a group advocating for eugenics – was financing the Tanton network. Buffet withdrew his support and Linda Chávez, a former member of the Ronald Reagan administration, resigned from her position at the helm of U.S. English.

Instead of rectifying his positions after these desertions, Tanton became even more provocative. In 1995, his publishing house 'The Social Contract Press' issued in English the racist book 'The Camp of the Saints' by Frenchman Jean Raspail. The novel, which describes the end of Western civilization due to an invasion of foreigners, is one of the works that Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon uses as a reference.

In 2008, SPLC researcher Heidi Beirich discovered in a Michigan library the letters Tanton exchanged for years with some of the best-known white supremacist and nationalist leaders such as Jared Taylor and Peter Brimelow.

The influence of "the Tanton network" would not be diminished. The organizations he created were cultivating state legislators that played a key role in the biggest legislative battles of the last three decades (Proposition 187 in California, Arizona's SB1070, Alabama's HB56 and the 2007 and 2013 national immigration reform).

But how much of an imprint the founding father has left on anti-immigrant groups in Washington is open for debate. Has his xenophobic philosophy survived?

"The way the SPLC describes it, he's like the puppeteer who runs all this and manages the threads and all that and that's like a joke," says Krikorian of the CIS.

He adds that the movement to restrict immigration is composed of people with diverse ideas. "Our organizations are much more mixed than people realize."

"(Tanton) has been a prolific writer and it is ridiculous to take a few lines of his thousands of documents out of context to try to suggest that his interest in the role of immigration in the future of the nation shows a racist or anti-immigrant tendency," FAIR spokesperson Jack Martin told Univision.

Experts on hate groups believe that Tanton's network continues to share his philosophy but, unlike him, they try to keep up appearances. Leaders of the groups, such as Roy Beck (Numbers USA) or Dan Stein (FAIR), are friends of Tanton and there is evidence that they support the white nationalist cause. The SPLC has done research on their relationships and found that Beck addressed the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group, and edited books and articles with white supremacist ideas. Evidence found by the SPLC, which was shared with Univision, claims that they vacationed together and at one point Tanton called Beck his "heir apparent".

Beirich told Univision News that current FAIR leaders were linked to Tanton through the magazine The Social Contract, which often publishes racist articles by white nationalists.

Brian Tashman, a hate group researcher for the progressive group People for the American Way, says these organizations know that Tanton's xenophobic writings and statements are not going to help their cause so they prefer to distance themselves: "They do not want him to be the face of the movement and they prefer to have him behind the scenes."