Immigration Rights Leader Rick Swartz Discusses His Battles Against the Anti-Immigrant Movement

Over the last quarter of a century, Rick Swartz may have done more than any other activist to encourage a healthy level of immigration to America and to protect the rights of immigrants once they are here.

After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, Swartz directed an immigrant rights project at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights before going on to found, in 1982, what has become the nation's leading immigration rights advocacy group, the National Immigration Forum.

Swartz was president of the Forum, a coalition of more than 250 national organizations and several thousand local groups, until 1990.

In that post, he worked to secure a safe haven for Haitian and Central American war refugees, to legalize the status of millions of other immigrants and to battle the anti-immigrant and English Only movements.

Since leaving the Forum, Swartz, now 52, has run a small public policy firm representing a range of corporate and nonprofit clients, at the same time continuing his immigration advocacy work.

The Intelligence Report asked Swartz about his lengthy battles with America's leading anti-immigration activists, his view of the movement today, and his analysis of the movement's prospects.

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: In looking at the contemporary anti-immigrant movement [see story, p. 44], we've found that even though there are a large number of organizations involved, they almost always seem to go back to one man — John Tanton, the Michigan ophthalmologist who founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform [FAIR] in 1979. Has that always been the case?

SWARTZ: Tanton is the puppeteer behind this entire movement. He is the organizer of a significant amount of its financing, and is both the major recruiter of key personnel and the intellectual leader of the whole network of groups.

I don't know if he's personally wealthy — it could well be that people give him big donations just because he is so mesmerizing. He does have a charismatic feel about him.

It's been clear since 1988, when a series of embarrassing internal memos by Tanton and Roger Conner [who was then executive director of FAIR] were leaked to the press, what the overall strategy is.

Those memos are a blueprint for what Tanton and his friends have been doing ever since.

IR: Can you describe that blueprint?

SWARTZ: The blueprint envisaged creating a whole array of organizations that serve the overall ideological and political battle plan to halt immigration — even if some of these groups have somewhat differing politics.

They camouflage the links between these organizations, their true origins, so that they appear to have arisen spontaneously. But in fact they have the same creator, Tanton.

IR: So the idea was to create the illusion of a grassroots movement that was supported by a significant number of Americans?

SWARTZ: Yes indeed, to confuse the press. The leaked memos did bring some public attention to the Tanton network, and some of these linkages were further exposed in the early 1990s.

More recently, FAIR's tax records established that the Center for Immigration Studies, which has become an influential Washington institution, was spun off from FAIR as a separate organization. But these facts aren't widely known by the public today.

For years and years, FAIR and these other spinoffs have been part of a strategy of, "Well, it can't just be FAIR and other major Tanton creations like U.S. English and the Center for Immigration Studies, because then it's too easy to pin us down. So therefore how about creating NumbersUSA, English First, the American Immigration Control Foundation and all these smaller local groups?"

All of this was anticipated by the memos, which were written in 1986, two years before the leak.

IR: Has even the limited exposure of these kinds of linkages damaged the ability of Tanton's anti-immigrant groups to affect public policy in Congress?

SWARTZ: They are well known to everybody deeply involved in the immigration debate. But when it comes to Congress, very few members — maybe two — can come close to understanding the situation or the history of the immigration reform efforts of the last 25 years. They may have voted on immigration-related items, but immigration is not a way of life for them.

IR: Let's go back a little. How did Tanton get started?

SWARTZ: When Tanton started FAIR in 1979, he was already president of a liberal organization, Zero Population Growth [ZPG]. He wanted ZPG to be the vehicle for a significant advocacy effort to reduce immigration, but the senior staff and at least some members of the ZPG board resisted.

As a result, FAIR was created. Conner ran FAIR as executive director through most of the '80s before leaving to become executive director of yet another Tanton creation, the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, which was intended to be an antidote to the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union].

At the time, FAIR was promoting employer sanctions [laws to punish those who hire illegal aliens] and dramatic increases in border enforcement, sweeps, arrests and deportations. It was opposing guest worker programs and asylum for refugees from Haiti or the Central American wars.

It was also FAIR that first had the idea of barring social services and other public benefits for immigrants [an enterprise that came to fruition with California's Proposition 187, which was passed in 1994 with the support of FAIR and other Tanton creations, but ultimately found to be unconstitutional].

FAIR also tried to build linkages to mainstream environmental groups, but without much success.