Skip to main content Accessibility
The Intelligence Report is the SPLC's award-winning magazine. Subscribe here for a print copy.

Center for Immigration Studies Continues to Produce Anti-Immigrant Studies

The Center for Immigration Studies says it's an 'independent' think tank seeking to expand knowledge. It's more than that.

En Español

Last October, as America was being roiled by the subprime mortgage meltdown that led to the current financial crisis, the executive director of one of the most influential immigration think tanks in the nation was in a joking mood.

Shortly after the failure of Washington Mutual Bank, Mark Krikorian found a press release issued months earlier by the bank that celebrated its inclusion on a list of "Business Diversity Elites" compiled by Hispanic Business magazine. Krikorian posted the release at the conservative National Review Online, where he writes from time to time, along with his own sneering headline: "Cause and Effect?"

Lou Dobbs, CNN's in-house immigrant basher, accepts the CIS "Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration" from CIS chief Mark Krikorian.

Krikorian no doubt thought of his posting as a simple joke. But to many, the attempt by the leader of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) to suggest a link between Washington Mutual's commitment to opening its ranks to Latinos and its demise spoke volumes about the nature of CIS and its prolific research. Although the think tank bills itself as an "independent" organization with a "pro-immigrant" if "low-immigration" vision, the reality is that CIS has never found any aspect of immigration that it liked.

There's a reason for that. Although you'd never know it to read its materials, CIS was started in 1985 by a Michigan ophthalmologist named John Tanton — a man known for his racist statements about Latinos, his decades-long flirtation with white nationalists and Holocaust deniers, and his publication of ugly racist materials. CIS' creation was part of a carefully thought-out strategy aimed at creating a set of complementary institutions to cultivate the nativist cause — groups including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and NumbersUSA. As is shown in Tanton's correspondence, lodged in the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Tanton came up with the idea in the early 1980s for "a small think tank" that would "wage the war of ideas."

And while Tanton never actually ran CIS, his correspondence shows that as late as 1994, nine years after it was started, Tanton, who remains on FAIR's board of directors today, saw himself as setting the "proper roles for FAIR and CIS." He raised millions of dollars for the think tank and published the writings of top CIS officials in his racist journal, The Social Contract. He maneuvered a friend on to the board of CIS — a man who shared his interest in eugenics and who attended events with Tanton where white nationalists gave presentations. Through it all, CIS pumped out study after study aimed at highlighting immigration's negative effects.

These studies have hardly been neutral. One of them concludes that because foreign women ("Third World gold-diggers") can obtain work permits by marrying American citizens, it's obvious that fraudulent marriage applications are "prevalent among terrorists." Another claims that because many immigrants have worked in Georgia since 2000, it's clear that unemployment among less educated native workers is up. A third says that because immigration levels have been high recently, immigrants make up a growing share of those drawing welfare.

But every one of these claims, each of them at the heart of a different recent report from CIS, are either false or virtually without any supporting evidence. That came to the fore again last September, when CIS organized a panel to accompany the release of yet another new report, this one claiming that municipalities in substantial numbers were permitting non-citizens to vote. When challenged, the panelists could only come up with a single possible example of the purported trend.

"CIS' attempts to blame immigrants for all of the U.S.'s problems have been laughable," said Angela Kelley of the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., organization that uses well-known scholars to produce reports on immigration-related issues and has debunked many of the studies issued by CIS. "It is clear that CIS is not interested in serious research or getting the facts straight."

Krikorian has had considerable success in giving CIS the look of a reputable commentator on immigration. CIS regularly sends experts to testify to Congress and is frequently quoted by the mainstream media. But every now and then, the mask slips.

In 2007, a year before his comments on Washington Mutual, Krikorian accepted an invitation to speak at the Michigan State University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom. It apparently didn't bother him that MSU-YAF had been widely covered in the media for a series of nasty stunts — staging a "Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day," holding a "Koran Desecration" competition, and posting "Gays Spread AIDS" flyers across campus. He also didn't seem to mind being part of the same speakers series that included Nick Griffin, a Holocaust denier who heads the extremist British National Party, and Jared Taylor, who says blacks are incapable of civilization.

Separated at Birth
Although it goes unmentioned on its website and in its other materials, CIS was born in 1985 as a program of FAIR, which had been run by Tanton since he started it in 1979. Even then, Tanton understood that CIS would soon need to stand on its own in order to be seen as the "independent, non-partisan" organization that its mission statement claims today. In a letter to Cordelia Scaife May, a far-right philanthropist who supported many of Tanton's nativist endeavors, Tanton was candid.

"For credibility," he told the woman whose foundation would go on to support CIS for decades, "this will need to be independent of FAIR, though the Center for Immigration Studies, as we're calling it, is starting off as a project of FAIR."

Tanton had a clear vision of the complementary, if unheralded, relationship between FAIR and CIS. As he wrote in another 1985 letter, CIS' role would be to produce reports "for later passage to FAIR, the activist organization, to remedy." And indeed, to this day, FAIR frequently cites CIS to back up its lobbying.

CIS was legally separated from FAIR in 1986 because, as Tanton wrote in a memo to two FAIR board members two years later, the think tank needed to be seen as separate "from the lobbying organization." But Tanton's correspondence suggests that he continued to steer the "independent" organization. In a 1986 memo to a file kept for the purpose of eventually writing an autobiography, Tanton described CIS as an organization over which he had direct control, as opposed to others that he said were "one level removed from our control." Eight years later, in 1994, Tanton wrote that he was still setting what he called "the proper roles for FAIR and CIS."

A 1994 Tanton letter also shows that he was critical to raising funds for CIS. Although Tanton said he played a "behind-the-scenes role" at CIS, he revealed that key backers of his other organizations had ponied up millions for CIS. Those large donations were key because CIS does not do direct-mail fundraising. (One of the major donors was the Neil A. McConnell Foundation, which is run by Scott McConnell. McConnell, who for a time was on the CIS board, edits The American Conservative, a far-right journal founded by white nationalist Pat Buchanan.)

But Krikorian, who has been the executive director of CIS since 1995, shrugged off the idea that Tanton had any influence there. "We've never had any institutional relationship," Krikorian told the Intelligence Report in an E-mail. "He's never been on our board or served as an employee, he's never even been in our offices." He said Tanton "had some role back in the mid-80s in helping rustle up money for CIS," but added that he and Tanton had no "personal relationship."

Krikorian sounded a similar note in 2004, when he testified before an immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. "He wrote us a check, I think it was a year ago," he said of Tanton. "It was the first check I have seen from him in nine or 10 years. … We have no institutional relationship."

That may be technically true. But four members of the CIS's current board of directors — Otis Graham, William Chip, Frank Morris and Peter Nunez, who chairs the CIS board — also serve as members of FAIR's board of advisers.

And Mark Krikorian knows John Tanton well. He worked for Tanton's FAIR before landing his post at CIS in 1995. When he was given the CIS job, Tanton wrote to congratulate him. Not long after, Krikorian began participating in annual Writers Workshops put on by Tanton. Through the years, Tanton wrote Krikorian about various aspects of policy. In 1995, for instance, Tanton warned Krikorian that "feelings overwhelm facts" in the immigration debate. In 1998, he congratulated Krikorian and another man for a CIS award they started for immigration journalism. In 2001, he offered suggestions for "a good handout for speeches, press conferences, etc." He frequently copied Krikorian on correspondence with white nationalists.

But Krikorian dismisses the contacts. "Tanton's among hundreds of people who send me ideas, suggestions, cc's of e-mails and the like," he told the Report.

Tanton's Man at CIS
One of John Tanton's oldest friends is Otis Graham, a North Carolinian and emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Graham sits today on the board of directors of CIS and is a key Tanton contact there.

The men have known each other since the 1970s, when both began to see immigration as a greater threat to the environment than population growth. Tanton was so fond of Graham and his late brother, Hugh, that he wrote their parents in 1998 to thank them "for presenting society with these such useful citizens." A year earlier, he wrote Otis Graham to thank him for 20 years of work together.

When Tanton started CIS as a FAIR project in 1985, Graham was a member of the FAIR board. But Tanton's correspondence makes clear that he was able to get Graham to leave the FAIR board in order to run CIS, a job he did until Krikorian took over in 1995. (Graham held various titles including executive director during that decade. But because Graham would not respond to the Report's inquiries and Krikorian refused to say, it remains unclear just what titles Graham held.)

Tanton frequently wrote Graham revealing letters. In 1991, he told him about former Klan leader David Duke's campaign for governor of Louisiana that year, which he described as based on "the excesses of affirmative action and illegitimate pregnancy." Tanton told Graham that "there is a lot going on out there on the cultural and ethnic (racial) difference" front and added, in a hopeful tone, that it was "all tied to immigration policy. At some point, this is going to break the dam."

Graham also frequently attended Tanton's Writers Workshops, including a number that featured presentations from white nationalists. In 1990, for instance, he was at a gathering where one speaker was Jared Taylor. (In November of that year, Taylor started American Renaissance, a racist journal focusing on race, genetics and intelligence. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Taylor would write that when black people are left on their own, "any kind of civilization disappears.") Tanton was so enthused about Taylor that in 1991 he sent Graham materials from Taylor and offered to pay for his subscription to American Renaissance.

Tanton also wrote Graham in 1991 about the case of the SS St. Louis, a German boat loaded with Jews trying to escape Europe in 1939. After it was denied entry to the United States and other countries, it was forced to return to Europe, where many passengers eventually were murdered. Tanton suggested to Graham that Jewish support for immigration was based on "guilt feelings" about the episode.

In 1994, after years of negative publicity, FAIR stopped accepting funds from a racist foundation called the Pioneer Fund, which was set up in 1937 to "improve the character of the American people" by promoting procreation by those of white, colonial stock. Though by that time FAIR had taken $1.2 million from Pioneer, the bad press had simply grown too damaging.

But that didn't weaken Tanton's private liking for the Pioneer Fund or for the pseudo-science it promoted — eugenics, the attempt to improve the human race through selective breeding. That same year, Tanton wrote to tell Graham that he was "right that we have a mutual friend in Harry Weyher," referring to the man who then was running the Pioneer Fund. "I, too, have a strong interest in genetics."

Tanton had long sought to rewrite the history of the Immigration Act of 1924, which is today widely seen as a racist statute that instituted a national origin quota system and completely barred Asian immigration. As part of that effort, he asked Graham several times to speak at FAIR board meetings or Writers Workshops about key intellectuals in the nativist movement that led to the 1924 law. One of them was Madison Grant, author of The Passing of the Great Race, an influential but racist 1916 book that described race as the basic motor of civilization and history. In one letter to Graham, Tanton suggested that "maybe [Grant] was just ahead of his time!" In another, he asked Graham to explain to the FAIR board that another racist law, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, was "just labor looking out for itself."

The Later Years
In 1995, Mark Krikorian took over day-to-day operations of CIS as its new executive director. But Otis Graham remained on the CIS board of directors, where he is still today. At the same time, Graham also stayed on the editorial advisory board of a journal published by Tanton, The Social Contract, where Graham had served since it started in 1991. The two men's close friendship continued.

Graham left The Social Contract's advisory board in 2003, but he was still there when it published a special volume entitled "Europhobia: The Hostility Toward European-Descended Americans." The 1996 issue included articles by white nationalists and argued that multiculturalism was wrecking white culture. He was also there when The Social Contract Press published a frankly racist novel depicting the overwhelming of gullible whites in France by dark-skinned immigrants.

In the years since, Graham has written several articles for The Social Contract, most recently a 2006 piece on immigration policy. He also still interacts with The Social Contract Press which publishes the journal. Last October, he spoke to a workshop hosted by the outfit entitled "Immigration Reform and America's Unchosen Future." Speaking from the same podium was Frosty Wooldridge, a rabid nativist who has accused immigrants of bringing a "disease jihad" to America and warned that continuing immigration will soon bring "internal civil conflict."

Graham isn't the only CIS official to write for The Social Contract. Both Krikorian and Steven Camarota, the CIS director of research, have done so, as have CIS Fellow Don Barnett and CIS board members Frank Morris, Vernon Briggs and William Chip. Chip also spoke last October at the Social Contract Press event.

Some at CIS have also written for a nativist hate site,, which is named after Virginia Dare, said to be the first English child born in the New World. They include CIS Fellow John Miano and board member Carol Iannone.

In 2004, Graham also responded to suggestions from Tanton that he look at past immigration debates in the United States to ferret out "good material … that should be brought back to life." In his Unguarded Gates: A History of America's Immigration Crisis, Graham claimed that a "mythistory" had been created during the civil rights movement that falsely depicted America as a "nation of immigrants" and "immigration restriction in the American past [as] a shameful expression of a bigotry called nativism." He depicted racist past policies as honest attempts to preserve a "working American nationality." He credited the 1924 statute's passage to the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, but failed to mention that it was indicted for sedition in 1942 because of its pro-Nazi activities or that its leader drew up plans to crush "Jewish subversives." And he dismissed the nearly 4 million-strong, angrily anti-Catholic Klan of the 1920s as "on the margins of immigration reform."

Tanton was with Graham every step of the way, advising him on materials and topics and reading the manuscript. Graham also thanked CIS board members Briggs and Nunez, along with CIS policy studies director Jessica Vaughn, for their help.

Letting in the Light
CIS makes much of its mainstream credentials, saying it seeks "to expand the base of public knowledge" in an effort to show the need for immigration policies that serve "the broad national interest." And indeed, CIS' website shows that it has testified to Congress close to 100 times since Krikorian took over in 1995.

But the history of CIS makes clear that it has always been part of a broad-based and well-planned effort to attack immigration in all forms. CIS Senior Policy Analyst Stephen Steinlight pretty much captured CIS' brand of "independent" analysis when he told the Inter Press Service News Agency in 2005 that immigration threatens "the American people as a whole and the future of Western civilization."

That is the real idea that lies behind CIS' worldview, even if CIS founder Tanton — who once warned of the "deadly disunity" that immigration was bringing to America — says it more clearly than most of CIS' officials today. It is much the same idea that has animated nativist extremists for centuries: the fear that Americans will be overwhelmed by foreigners who wreck the U.S. culture and economy.