Intelligence Report

John Tanton is the Mastermind Behind the Organized Anti-Immigration Movement

The organized anti-immigration 'movement,' increasingly in bed with racist hate groups, is dominated by one man, John Tanton.

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Before he even said a word, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) got a standing ovation from the 27 anti-immigration activists who gathered at the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., on the morning of Feb. 13 to kick off a two-day lobbying effort on Capitol Hill.

Tancredo, chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, proceeded to regale his audience with ominous warnings of a global plot to destroy the United States.

Many countries are pushing immigration in order to erode American sovereignty, Tancredo warned: "China is trying to export people. It's a policy for them, a way of extending their hegemony. It's a government-sponsored thing."

After Tancredo's 10-minute pep talk, Brian Bilbray, a former Republican congressman from San Diego, Calif., weighed in with horror stories about an impending social catastrophe due to immigration.

"We are creating a slave class that criminal elements breed in," said Bilbray, who complained bitterly — and improbably — that he lost his 2000 re-election bid because "illegal aliens" had voted against him.

But all was not doom and gloom, according to Bilbray.

Praising the post-9/11 sweeps of Arab communities by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that resulted in the indefinite detention of more than a thousand people, Bilbray called for the INS to carry out an enlarged dragnet. "We could have a terrorist coming in on a Latin name," he said.

The meeting with Tancredo and Bilbray — and the entire lobbying operation in mid-February — was masterminded by NumbersUSA, an anti-immigration group that had recently opened a "government relations office" in a three-story, red-brick Victorian near the Capitol.

NumbersUSA hosted an afternoon open house at its plush new digs, where the lobbyists relaxed, nibbled on catered food, and conversed with the leaders and other officials of key anti-immigration organizations.

Patrick McHugh of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which purports to be a squeaky clean think tank that rejects racism, was there pressing the flesh along with Barbara Coe, head of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, who repeatedly referred to Mexicans — as she has for years — as "savages."

The Citizens Informer, a white supremacist tabloid put out by the Council of Conservative Citizens hate group, was available.

NumbersUSA executive director Roy Beck, a long-time friend of Coe's, adopted a more moderate tone when he addressed his guests and told them what they should be doing to end the current immigration regime.

It would be better, Beck counseled, if their attempts to lobby legislators that week did not appear to be orchestrated by NumbersUSA. For their campaign to be effective, he said, it "needs to look like a grassroots effort."

Grassroots — or AstroTurf?
To be sure, this was no grassroots effort. Nor is NumbersUSA, in any sense of the word, a grassroots organization.

Despite attempts to appear otherwise, it is a wholly owned subsidiary of U.S. Inc., a sprawling, nonprofit funding conduit that has spawned three anti-immigration groups and underwrites several others, many of which were represented at the NumbersUSA conclave.

What's more, this interlocking network of supposedly independent organizations is almost entirely the handiwork of one man, a Michigan ophthalmologist named John H. Tanton.

A four-month investigation by the Intelligence Report, conducted in the aftermath of the September terrorist attacks, found that the appearance of an array of groups with large membership bases is nothing more than a mirage.

In fact, the vast majority of American anti-immigration groups — more than a dozen in all — were either formed, led, or in other ways made possible through Tanton's efforts.

The principal funding arm of the movement, U.S. Inc., is a Tanton creation, and millions of dollars in financing comes from just a few of his allies, far-right foundations like those controlled by the family of Richard Mellon Scaife.

Moreover, tax returns suggest that claims of huge numbers of members — in the case of one group, more than 250,000 — are geometric exaggerations put forward to create a false picture of a "movement" that politicians should pay attention to.

Finally, even as activists court increasing numbers of national politicians in the wake of Sept. 11, the Report's investigation reveals that they are moving in large numbers into the arms of hate groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens — a 15,000-member organization whose website recently described blacks as "a retrograde species of humanity."

In fact, many anti-immigration groups have been growing harder- and harder-line since 1998, when they first began working together with open white supremacists. Today, many of their leading officials have joined racist organizations.

There's a word in Washington for outfits like these anti-immigration organizations — "astroturf," meaning that they lack any genuine grassroots base.

That such groups, with their increasingly direct links to racist organizations, should have real power in the nation's capital may seem hard to believe.

But Americans have grown increasingly xenophobic in the wake of the September terrorist attacks, and the rapid growth of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus that Tancredo heads reflects that — from just 10 legislators prior to the attacks to 59 by May.

What kind of influence do extremists have in this congressional caucus?

Although that is hard to measure, the caucus website now carries a prominent link to an outfit called American Patrol — a racist hate group run by Californian Glenn Spencer.

With a tip of the hat to Tancredo and the other legislators who have helped to provide him legitimacy, Spencer recently deleted from his website the image of a cartoon figure urinating on a Latino Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

From Environment to Race
It is not often that a single individual is largely responsible for creating an entire political movement. But John Tanton can claim without exaggeration that he is the founding father of America's modern anti-immigration movement.

In addition to directly controlling four prominent immigration restriction groups, Tanton has been critical in establishing or helping fund several other anti-immigration groups.

He serves on the board of the group with the largest membership, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which he founded 23 years ago.

It was an odd turn of events for an erstwhile liberal activist who loved beekeeping and the rural life.

Raising a family and practicing medicine in Petoskey, Mich., Tanton started out as a passionate environmentalist. In the 1960s and early 1970s, he was a leader in the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and other mainstream environmental groups.

But Tanton soon became fixated on population control, seeing environmental degradation as the inevitable result of overpopulation.

When the indigenous birth rate fell below replacement level in the United States, his preoccupation turned to immigration. And this soon led him to race.

Tanton had something akin to a conversion when he came across The Camp of the Saints, a lurid, racist novel written by Frenchman Jean Raspail that depicts an invasion of the white, Western world by a fleet of starving, dark-skinned refugees.

Tanton helped get the novel published in English and soon was promoting what he considered the book's prophetic argument.

"Their [Third World] 'huddled masses' cast longing eyes on the apparent riches of the industrial west," Tanton wrote in 1975. "The developed countries lie directly in the path of a great storm."

And so he began to develop a counter-force. After 1979, when he co-founded FAIR, Tanton launched "a whole array of organizations that serve the overall ideological and political battle plan to halt immigration — even if those groups have somewhat differing politics," explained Rick Swartz, the pro-immigration activist who founded the National Immigration Forum in 1982.

"Tanton is the puppeteer behind this entire movement," Swartz said. "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."

Tanton declined to be interviewed for this story.

The Strategy Emerges
Tanton's strategy was to fight his war on several fronts. FAIR relied heavily on arguments about diminishing resources and jobs.

In 1982, Tanton created U.S. Inc. to raise and channel funds to his anti-immigration network. The following year, he created his second major vehicle, U.S. English, which made a cultural argument — that the English language was in mortal danger of being made irrelevant.

And later, in 1985, FAIR would spin off yet another major Tanton organization — the Center for Immigration Studies, which presented itself as an impartial think tank and later even sought to distance itself from the organization that had birthed it.

Today, the Center regularly dispatches experts to testify on Capitol Hill, and last year it was awarded a six-figure research contract by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the 1980s, U.S. Inc. provided millions of dollars to FAIR, U.S. English, the Center for Immigration Studies and several similar groups — the 21st Century Fund, Population-Environment Balance, and the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which is now a litigation arm of FAIR.

During the 1990s, Tanton's U.S. Inc. adopted a new tactic, creating programs called NumbersUSA, The Social Contract Press (which publishes The Camp of the Saints), and Pro English.

Although these units would often present themselves as independent, tax forms make it clear that they are merely programs of U.S. Inc.

Tanton's funding organization, U.S. Inc., also has recently given money to Barbara Coe's California Coalition for Immigration Reform and Glenn Spencer's American Patrol (also known as Voice of Citizens Together), two of the most virulently anti-Hispanic groups in Tanton's network.

In the Trenches
Tanton's "movement" achieved some notable successes:

  • Almost 30 states and many more local communities passed "English Only" statutes enshrining English as the language of official business.
  • In 1994, after extensive campaigning by Tanton-supported groups, millions of Californians joined in passing Proposition 187, which denied social services to undocumented workers.
  • Two years later, Tanton celebrated the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, a law meant to cut illegal immigration that was heavily backed by anti-immigration groups. It required that asylum seekers be held in detention until they established a credible fear of persecution at home, a process that could take years.

There were failures, too. In 1996, Tanton helped to energize an effort to get the Sierra Club, a mainstream environmental group whose Population Committee he had headed during the 1970s, to pass an anti-immigration plank.

A major battle ensued, with many Sierra Club members seeing the proposed plank as fundamentally racist and out of line with the group's charter. The plank was finally rejected by 60% of those voting — but that may not be the end of it.

Another Tanton-financed group, Californians for Population Stabilization, is now gearing up to reintroduce the issue to the Sierra Club.

Tanton was also careless in several ways.

Between 1985 and 1994, FAIR accepted $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund — an outfit once described by eugenics expert Barry Mehler as a "neo-Nazi organization, tied to the Nazi eugenics program in the 1930s, that has never wavered in its commitment to eugenics and ideas of human and racial inferiority and superiority."

When the Pioneer link was disclosed in 1988, Tanton, who was then president of FAIR's board, said he knew nothing of Pioneer's unsavory history. Yet his group continued to accept Pioneer grants for another six years, until 1994.

The Wise Men's Mistake
More damaging, however, was the leak, shortly before a 1988 English Only referendum in Arizona, of the so-called WITAN memos written by Tanton and the then-executive director of FAIR, Roger Conner. (WITAN was short for the Old English term "witenangemot," meaning "council of wise men." The memos were meant for Tanton colleagues who met at retreats to discuss immigration.)

The memos were replete with derogatory references to Latinos, reflecting a kind of entrenched bigotry that had only been suspected before. They complained mightily of the high Hispanic birth rate suggesting that Latin American immigrants would bring political corruption to the United States.

The memos included a demographic punchline that depicted Hispanics as hyperactive breeders and revolted many readers: "[P]erhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down."

Linda Chavez, executive director of Tanton creation U.S. English and later a prominent Republican conservative columnist, quit over what she saw as Tanton's bigoted, anti-Latino bias.

So did several well-known U.S. English board members, including advisory board member Walter Cronkite, who called the memos "embarrassing."

Eventually Tanton left, although he complained he was being smeared as a racist, and went on to form a replacement organization — English Language Advocates, later renamed Pro English.

More to the point, perhaps, the WITAN memos spelled out the strategy that Tanton would continue to follow for years. "We have spent some time, money and effort trying to build a membership for purposes of political validity and power," one memo said, "but this has not been a major emphasis."

The memos candidly added what anti-immigration groups would not admit publicly — that the "movement" was "heavily based on a small number of donors."

Crossing the Rubicon
In many ways, 1998 became a kind of political Rubicon for Tanton and his colleagues. That year, a federal judge found much of Proposition 187 unconstitutional, dealing the anti-immigration movement one of its harshest setbacks ever and igniting a kind of desperation that drove many activists into increasingly extremist politics.

At the same time, Congress was whittling away at the 1996 immigration law, and u.s. political and economic elites generally were supporting immigration.

At least partly as a result of these developments, anti-immigration activists increasingly came to embrace conspiracist ideas like the notion pushed by Spencer and Coe of a Mexican plot to reconquer the American Southwest.

More and more key leaders in the Tanton network seemed to abandon all caution when it came to joining forces with like-minded white supremacist activists.

That summer, The Social Contract Press released a special issue of its journal, The Social Contract (published by Tanton), that was entitled "Europhobia: The Hostility Toward European-Descended Americans."

The lead article was written by John Vinson, head of the Tanton-supported American Immigration Control Foundation, and argued that "multiculturalism" was replacing "successful Euro-American culture" with "dysfunctional Third World cultures."

Tanton himself elaborated on Vinson's remarks, saying an "unwarranted hatred and fear" of white Americans was developing. The main culprits, in Tanton's view, were immigrants and their ideological allies, the "multiculturalists."

The issue was one of the first public manifestations of a collaboration between Tanton's network and open racists. In addition to Tanton and Vinson, the line-up of authors included:

  • Sam Francis, who would later become editor of the Citizens Informer, the racist publication of the Council of Conservative Citizens;
  • Lawrence Auster, who also spoke at conferences of American Renaissance, a pseudo-scientific magazine devoted to racial breeding and the idea that blacks are less intelligent; and
  • Joseph Fallon, who writes for American Renaissance.

Later issues of The Social Contract would carry articles by James Lubinskas, an editor of American Renaissance; Derek Turner of Right Now!, a similar British publication; and Michael Masters, the Virginia leader of the Council of Conservative Citizens.

An unholy alliance had begun to take shape. Number Inflation
Tanton also wrote an editorial in 1998 that spoke of "trying to touch off the political phase of the immigration reform movement."

While Tanton didn't spell out exactly what he meant, it seems clear that he sought to develop a real base of popular support — and to regain the trust of lawmakers, particularly the many Republicans who were scared off in the wake of the Proposition 187 fiasco. Many already had been punished at the polls for their support for the California proposition.

Typically, American politicians respond most to those groups that seem to represent a real constituency — groups whose leaders are presumed to be able to command votes and money. Obviously, it was in the interest of the now struggling anti-immigration groups to appear to have large numbers of paid-up members.

The problem was, most of them did not.

First of all, the vast majority of funding for most of these groups comes from just a handful of donors, many of them large, right-wing foundations.

  • In 2000, the latest year for which tax returns are available, Vinson's American Immigration Control Foundation (AICF) received 90% of its funding from just three contributors.
  • Five contributions accounted for 82% of U.S. Inc.'s income in the same year.
  • Fifty-eight percent of FAIR's 2000 donations were provided by six donors.
  • Fourteen donors account for 94% of the Center for Immigration Studies income for that year.

The narrow funding base of such groups becomes even more apparent in cases like that of FAIR (with a budget of $4.2 million in 2000), which received more than $6 million from a single donor between 1996 and 1999.

U.S. Inc. (whose 2000 budget was $2.3 million) likewise got nearly $5 million in that period from one donor, while three other Tanton-linked organizations were given $1 million to $2 million donations by single donors.

If these kinds of major grants are subtracted from the groups' annual donation totals — and if the membership fees posted on group websites are taken seriously — then the membership claims made by many groups are clearly exaggerated.

For example, after subtracting the three major donations reported on AICF's 2000 tax forms, only $39,386 in income is left. If members pay $15 a year, as the AICF website says, then the group has at most 2,625 members — hardly the 250,000-plus that it claims.

Similarly, ProjectUSA has said it has 3,000 members; but if a donation of $20 — a figure recently suggested on its website — was paid by each donor, then it would have had 841 members.

In the case of FAIR, which claims 75,000 members, the 2000 tax forms suggests a real membership base of about half that.

FAIR's executive director, Dan Stein, defends his numbers, telling the Intelligence Report members pay "a certain amount over a period of 24 months ... like $20" — in other words, $10 a year. FAIR's website says that membership costs $25 a year.

The Foundations
The tax returns reveal another hidden aspect of many anti-immigration groups — their heavy reliance on funding by right-wing foundations.

Tanton's most important funding source for the last two decades may well have been the Scaife family, heirs to the Mellon Bank fortune.

Richard Mellon Scaife, a reclusive figure, has been instrumental in establishing right-wing organizations like the Heritage Foundation and supporting causes like the "Arkansas Project," an effort to dig up dirt on President Clinton.

Scaife family foundations, including those controlled by Scaife's sister, Cordelia May Scaife, provided some $1.4 million to FAIR from 1986-2000.

These foundations, along with private trusts controlled by Scaife family members, have also provided millions of dollars to other anti-immigration groups.

Other foundations that have supported the Tanton network include:

  • The McConnell Foundation, whose president, Scott McConnell, is on both FAIR and the Center for Immigration Studies' boards;
  • The Shea Foundation, which also funds the Council of Conservative Citizens; and
  • The Weeden, Salisbury, Smith Richardson, Blair and Sikes foundations.

Joining the Extremists
Since 1998, the links have been strengthened between key anti-immigration activists and groups and white supremacist organizations – in particular, the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) and American Renaissance (also known by the name of its parent, the New Century Foundation).

That year, Coe, Spencer and Rick Oltman, FAIR's western regional representative, all came to Cullman, Ala., for a CCC-organized protest against a swelling local population of Mexican workers.

After the protest, Vinson, the leader of the American Immigration Control Foundation, began writing of the perils of immigration for the CCC's paper, the Citizens Informer. Spencer started selling his anti-immigrant videotape in the same tabloid.

In 1999, the CCC hosted a panel on immigration that featured four key anti-immigrant activists — Vinson, Spencer, Population-Environment Balance's Virginia Abernethy and Wayne Lutton, who had begun to edit The Social Contract, a Tanton publication, just a year earlier.

More recently, Lutton joined the editorial board of the Citizens Informer — and also became a trustee of the racist New Century Foundation, parent of American Renaissance magazine.

Barbara Coe of California Coalition for Immigration Reform has spoken at three recent CCC conferences and writes regularly for the Informer.

Brent Nelson, who is on the board of Vinson's AICF, began serving as president of the CCC's Conservative Citizens Foundation and as an adviser to the Informer.

Asked by the Intelligence Report about Lutton — who works out of Tanton's Petoskey, Mich., offices — and other anti-immigration activists who have climbed on board with hate groups, Tanton declined to answer that or a series of other questions faxed to him by the Report at his request.

The questions showed "little evidence of tolerance for differences of opinion," he wrote.

Last year, Virginia Abernethy, a professor emeritus at Vanderbilt's medical school and leader of the Tanton-influenced Population-Environment Balance, became the latest in the Tanton network to join the Citizens Informer editorial board.

"My view of the Council of Conservative Citizens," she told the Intelligence Report, "is that they support traditional values and the freedom of people to associate with people that they want to associate with."

She spoke on the same day that the CCC's website carried a comparison of black pop singer Michael Jackson and an ape — a comparison that Abernethy suggested may have reflected "bad taste," but not racism.

"What is the point of a society that pushes [racial] mixing?" she asked when told of another CCC web item that derided the wife of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl as a "mixed race" woman who is "committed to racial and ethnic amalgamation."

"Our society pushes mixing," the retired Vanderbilt professor added. "I think this is probably not a good thing for the society."

The Threat from the Right
Two weeks after the NumbersUSA lobbying trip to the offices of Tom Tancredo and a series of other congressmen, Glenn Spencer, head of the Tanton-funded anti-immigrant American Patrol, was one of the main speakers at a conference hosted by Jared Taylor of American Renaissance magazine.

Joining Spencer, who warned his audience that a second Mexican-American war would erupt in 2003, was an array of key extremists:

Neo-Nazis like those of the National Alliance were not among those who lobbied Tancredo and the other politicians during the NumbersUSA event two weeks earlier.

But there were strong indications that the Tanton network and some of its new friends did make a number of key inroads in the halls of Congress.

The white supremacist CCC, for instance, later boasted in print about how its "members were welcomed ... and made a number of stops" during the lobbying trip. Both congressmen and senators were offered copies of its Citizens Informer, the group's newspaper reported.

Several of the anti-immigration activists who attended later claimed that the Tancredo caucus had grown in size specifically because of their lobbying efforts. At the end of the day, the CCC told its members that the Senate was now expected to pass a restrictive visa-tracking bill, which it said President Bush would likely sign.

There were other indications, too, of the strength of the Tanton network inside Tancredo's congressional immigration caucus.

Rosemary Jenks, who used to be a researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies, and Linda Purdue, who has worked with Tanton for years, are now both lobbyists with NumbersUSA.

Addressing her fellow lobbyists with Tancredo still in the room, Jenks said that she and Purdue could be reached any time in Tancredo's offices — where, she said, they were "virtual staffers."

This kind of strategy was explicitly foreseen in the WITAN memos, described under subtitles like "Infiltrate the Judiciary Committee" and "Secure appointments of our friends" to key governmental positions.

Indeed, Cordia Strom, who was once FAIR's legal director, became a staffer for the House Immigration Subcommittee in 1996. Today, Strom is counsel to the director and coordinator of congressional affairs for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

There is a real threat that members of Congress — many of whom are rushing to become involved in immigration issues in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks — may be taken in by the propagandists of the racist right.

Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Americans believe that immigration needs to be cut below current levels, although that does not imply that they support the ideas of white supremacists or other bigots.

Certainly, the lobbyists who visited in February were taken seriously by many of those they visited — today, the web page of Tancredo's Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus carries links to the pages of a whole array of Tanton-associated groups.

The danger is not that immigration levels are debated by Americans, but that the debate is controlled by bigots and extremists whose views are anathema to the ideals on which this country was founded.