New York Times
April 17, 2011
by Jason DeParle
WASHINGTON — Three decades ago, a middle-aged doctor sat outside his northern Michigan home and saw a patch of endangered paradise.
A beekeeper and amateur naturalist of prodigious energy, John Tanton had spent two decades planting trees, cleaning creeks and suing developers, but population growth put ever more pressure on the land. Though fertility rates had fallen, he saw a new threat emerging: soaring rates of immigration.
Time and again, Dr. Tanton urged liberal colleagues in groups like Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club to seek immigration restraints, only to meet blank looks and awkward silences.
“I finally concluded that if anything was going to happen, I would have to do it myself,” he said.
Improbably, he did. From the resort town of Petoskey, Mich., Dr. Tanton helped start all three major national groups fighting to reduce immigration, legal and illegal, and molded one of the most powerful grass-roots forces in politics. The immigration-control movement surged to new influence in last fall’s elections and now holds near veto power over efforts to legalize any of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
One group that Dr. Tanton nurtured, Numbers USA, doomed President George W. Bush’s legalization plan four years ago by overwhelming Congress with protest calls. Another, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, helped draft the Arizona law last year to give the police new power to identify and detain illegal immigrants.
A third organization, the Center for Immigration Studies, joined the others in December in defeating the Dream Act, which sought to legalize some people brought to the United States illegally as children.
Rarely has one person done so much to structure a major cause, or done it so far from the public eye. Dr. Tanton has raised millions of dollars, groomed protégés and bequeathed institutions, all while running an ophthalmology practice nearly 800 miles from Capitol Hill.
“He is the most influential unknown man in America,” said Linda Chavez, a former aide to President Ronald Reagan who once led a Tanton group that promoted English-only laws.
While Dr. Tanton’s influence has been extraordinary, so has his evolution — from apostle of centrist restraint to ally of angry populists and a man who increasingly saw immigration through a racial lens.
Mindful that the early-20th-century fight to reduce immigration had been marred by bigotry, Dr. Tanton initially emphasized FAIR’s identity as a “centrist group” and made arguments aimed at liberals and minorities. He allowed few local FAIR chapters, warning that a stray demagogue might “go off half-cocked and spoil the whole effort.”
When a member of FAIR wrote that Hispanic immigrants should be shot — because they “multiply like a bunch of rats” — a staff member offered to refund his dues. Early supporters included Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Warren E. Buffett.
Now FAIR’s signature event is an annual gathering of talk radio hosts, where earnest policy pitches share time with the kind of battle cries Dr. Tanton once feared. This year’s event mixed discussion of job losses among minorities with calls to use Tomahawk missiles on Tijuana drug lords, while a doubter of President Obama’s birth certificate referred to “the undocumented worker” in the White House. Leading allies include Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, whose sweeps of Latino neighborhoods around Phoenix have prompted a federal investigation.
While the whole movement grew more vehement as illegal immigration increased, Dr. Tanton seemed especially open to provocative allies and ideas. He set off a storm of protests two decades ago with a memorandum filled with dark warnings about the “Latin onslaught.” Word soon followed that FAIR was taking money from the Pioneer Fund, a foundation that promoted theories of the genetic superiority of whites.
Dr. Tanton, who remains on the FAIR board, denied charges of racial bias and donated his papers to the University of Michigan to show that he and colleagues “are not the unsavory types sometimes alleged.” They include hundreds of private letters, some outlining his interest in genetic differences between the races and concerns about the country’s changing ethnic mix.
Reeling from their recent defeats, supporters of immigrant rights are mining those files as part of a fierce — critics say unfair — campaign to label him a racist and discredit his broader cause. Some have gone as far as calling FAIR a “hate group.”
But accusations of bigotry could alienate moderates the immigrant rights groups need. Allies of Dr. Tanton say their accusers are discrediting themselves with a guilt-by-association campaign that twists his ideas and projects them onto groups where, they say, his influence long ago waned. Still, few of those allies are willing to defend all the views he expresses in his files.
Dr. Tanton, 77, declined interview requests, citing problems from Parkinson’s disease. That leaves his files to speak for themselves. Is he an embodiment of his powerful movement or an embarrassment to it?
A Pledge of Centrism
Petoskey, population 6,000, hugs Lake Michigan in a forested area known for sailboats and summer homes. Dr. Tanton has spent most of his adult life there, chopping wood, keeping bees and growing kale. Even as late as 2000, the surrounding county was 94 percent white.
Regretting what he saw as the limits of his rural education, Dr. Tanton compensated with autodidactic zest. He started a Great Books Club, read up on macroeconomics and polished his foreign language skills by subscribing to a German newspaper. The results included a wide-ranging mind and at times a tone deafness. He is a former farm boy who calls colleagues “chaps.”
Dr. Tanton founded local chapters of Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club and became the national president of Zero Population Growth. Unable to interest colleagues in fighting immigration, he formed FAIR in 1979, pledging in his proposal to make it “centrist/liberal in political orientation.” The first director, Roger Conner, had made his mark as a liberal environmental advocate.
Otis L. Graham Jr., a founding board member, wrote, “A leading concern for me is to bring into FAIR strong representation from people in groups of liberal, progressive disposition.”
Then, as today, there were serious liberal arguments for lower immigration. FAIR hoped to enlist unions concerned about wage erosion, environmentalists concerned about pollution and sprawl, and blacks concerned about competition for housing, jobs and schools.
A few prominent Democrats lent support, including Senator McCarthy. But most liberal groups saw immigrants, even illegal ones, as minorities to be protected, rather than economic rivals. Unions saw potential members; Democrats saw voters.
“We didn’t convince anybody,” Mr. Graham said in an interview.
Worried that it was losing the war of ideas, FAIR in 1985 spun off a free-standing research group, the Center for Immigration Studies, intended “to make the restriction of immigration a legitimate position for thinking people,” as Dr. Tanton put it.
The next year FAIR faced a defining fight over the first major immigration bill in more than 20 years. It created penalties for employers who hired illegal workers but legalized several million people already here. With FAIR sharply split, Dr. Tanton pushed it to support the compromise, but the penalties proved ineffective and the amnesty was marred by fraud.
No one at FAIR would think of compromising on legalization again.
FAIR was founded on complaints about the immigrants’ numbers, not their culture. But Dr. Tanton feared that they were failing to assimilate. He formed a new group, U.S. English, to oppose bilingual education and demand that government agencies use English alone. By 1988, Dr. Tanton had a high-profile director in Ms. Chavez and ballot measures pending in three states.
Then The Arizona Republic revealed the contents of a memorandum he had sent to friends before a brainstorming session. “Will Latin-American migrants bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe)?” he asked. “As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?”
Latino fertility rates caused him special alarm: “those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!”
Soon followed the news that FAIR had received grants from the Pioneer Fund, whose most famous grantee was William B. Shockley, the Nobel-winning physicist who argued that for genetic reasons, blacks are intellectually inferior to whites.
Ms. Chavez resigned, Mr. Buffett stopped supporting FAIR, and any hope of significant liberal support vanished.
Some colleagues never forgave him.
“The fear was that one ugly person could tar the larger movement, and sadly, ironically, it turned out that person was John Tanton,” said Patrick Burns, who was then FAIR’s deputy director.
But if anything, Dr. Tanton grew more emboldened to challenge taboos. He increasingly made his case against immigration in racial terms.
“One of my prime concerns,” he wrote to a large donor, “is about the decline of folks who look like you and me.” He warned a friend that “for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”
Dr. Tanton acknowledged the shift from his earlier, colorblind arguments, but the “uncomfortable truth,” he wrote, was that those arguments had failed. With a million or more immigrants coming each year — perhaps a third illegally — he warned, “The end may be nearer than we think.”
He corresponded with Sam G. Dickson, a Georgia lawyer for the Ku Klux Klan, who sits on the board of The Barnes Review, a magazine that, among other things, questions “the so-called Holocaust.” Dr. Tanton promoted the work of Jared Taylor, whose magazine, American Renaissance, warned: “America is an increasingly dangerous and disagreeable place because of growing numbers of blacks and Hispanics.” (To Mr. Taylor, Dr. Tanton wrote, “You are saying a lot of things that need to be said.”)
Beyond immigration, he revived an old interest in eugenics, another field trailed by a history of racial and class prejudice.
“Do we leave it to individuals to decide that they are the intelligent ones who should have more kids?” he wrote. “And more troublesome, what about the less intelligent, who logically should have less. Who is going to break the bad news to them?”
Still, few friends confronted him.
“My biggest regret is I looked at what he was doing, rolled my eyes and said, ‘That’s John,’ ” said Mr. Conner, the first FAIR director, who praised Dr. Tanton’s great “decency and his generosity on a personal level” and his selfless devotion to his cause. Those qualities are “so profound that the people around him disregarded things that we should have called him on,” he added.
Power in the Ballot
Dr. Tanton argued that the public was incensed by illegal immigration, but that elites ignored “hoi polloi,” who bore such costs as rising crime and overcrowded schools.
FAIR first glimpsed the power of populist action with the passage of Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative in California barring illegal residents from virtually all social services. But victories came slower on Capitol Hill, where immigrant groups stood with business lobbies eager for foreign labor. The anger that shook California was slow to make the Capitol switchboard buzz.
The man who most changed that was Roy Beck, who spent several years as Washington editor of The Social Contract, Dr. Tanton’s journal. Mr. Beck formed Numbers USA in 1997 to help pipe the growing populist anger into Congressional offices. Dr. Tanton helped him raise money and housed the group for four years under his umbrella organization, U.S. Inc.
Mr. Beck mobilized a database of supporters with what was then a novel technology, the Internet fax. Prompted by a well-timed alert, his followers could register outrage with a few mouse clicks — or call. They did, in attention-grabbing numbers.
A folksy entrant to a fiery debate, Mr. Beck appeared to share little with the white nationalist element in Dr. Tanton’s broad circle. He calls himself a racial liberal and argues that lower immigration would raise the wages of native-born blacks. He put a picture of Barbara Jordan, a black civil rights leader and politician he considered an ally, on the Numbers USA Web site.
Yet at The Social Contract, he was part of a journal that often criticized immigration on racial grounds, and Dr. Tanton once dubbed Mr. Beck his “heir apparent.”
“He’s just like any friend — there are lots of issues I don’t agree with him on,” Mr. Beck said.
Numbers USA showed its force in 2002 when Republican leaders of the House backed a bill that would have allowed some illegal immigrants to remain in the United States while seeking legal status. Numbers USA set the phones on fire, and a majority of Republicans opposed it.
“I had people come up to me on the floor of the House saying, ‘O.K., O.K., call off the dogs’ — meaning Numbers USA,” said former Representative Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who fought the bill.
The big war broke out in 2007, after Mr. Bush proposed a systemic overhaul including a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants. Supporters said it would free millions of people from fear and exploitation; opponents argued that it would reward lawbreakers and encourage more illegal immigration.
FAIR rallied talk show hosts. The Center for Immigration Studies churned out studies of the bill’s perceived flaws. Numbers USA jammed the Capitol’s phones.
Their success became the stuff of lore. They “lit up the switchboard for weeks,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, explaining his decision to oppose the bill. “And to every one of them, I say today: ‘Your voice was heard.’ ”
Becoming a Target
For supporters of granting legal status, the vote was a total rout. “Let’s face it, they kicked our butt,” said Frank Sharry, who led a business-immigrant group for the bill. A new network formed of loosely affiliated liberal groups with a more confrontational bent. It seized on two words: John Tanton.
In December 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Center dubbed FAIR a “hate group.” In Chicago, the Center for New Community tracked “Tanton’s empire of fear and prejudice.”
Mr. Sharry’s new group, America’s Voice, placed newspaper advertisements warning Congress not to meet “with extremist groups like FAIR.” Its online video combines pictures of Dr. Tanton and Mr. Beck with images of Klan members and Nazis.
Mr. Sharry acknowledges that he used to warn colleagues that charges of racism would backfire. But he said the 2007 debate convinced him of his opponents’ ill will. “I’ve gone from saying they’re part of the process to seeing them as extremists who want to expel millions of people,” he said. While they started with a liberal gloss, “their juice became culturally conservative Republicans who don’t like brown people.”
Despite such attacks, the groups remain influential. Georgia legislators passed a bill last week much like the Arizona measure that FAIR helped draft. Its main sponsor, State Representative Matt Ramsey, a Republican, asked FAIR to review an early draft and credited Numbers USA with helping to mobilize local supporters.
“That grass-roots program they have is incredibly effective,” he said.
Dan Stein, the president of FAIR, said opponents were suddenly focusing on Dr. Tanton — now in his 32nd year on the board — to silence a policy debate they had lost.
“Is FAIR responsible for everything he said in his private correspondence? No,” he said. “I love John, but he’s had no significant control over FAIR for years.” Citing antidiscrimination language on FAIR’s Web site, he added, “We’ve always said you should not discriminate on the basis of race.”
Mr. Beck said the charges of bigotry were especially unfair and let a reporter hear a tape of his 1970 wedding ceremony, which included a song he wrote pledging to fight “race hate.” He deliberately lives in integrated neighborhoods, he said, and sent his children to integrated schools, including one in a mostly black housing project.
“What kind of racist does that?” he said. “They’ve never accused us of doing anything that’s racist or white nationalist. It’s only that Numbers U.S.A. ‘has ties’ ” to Dr. Tanton.
He added: “Even if there were some mild strain of white nationalism in John, the fact is that the results of everything he is pushing in immigration policy would disproportionately help black and Hispanic Americans.”
The Center for Immigration Studies, where Dr. Tanton played a lesser role, has come closest to criticizing him, writing last year that he had a “tin ear for the sensitivities of immigration.” (A blogger then attacked the center as undermining “the patriotic struggle.”)
Mr. Sharry said the groups’ reluctance to criticize Dr. Tanton showed tacit agreement. But Mr. Conner, the former FAIR director, called it politeness toward a beleaguered friend. “It’s been perfectly clear that people have not been willing to defend John,” he said.
Mr. Burns, his former FAIR colleague, said the groups’ silence was harming an honorable cause. “The immigration reform movement has to say what it is and what it’s not, and it has to say it’s not John Tanton,” he said.