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Philanthropist Robert W. Wilson Supports Federation for American Immigration Reform

A major philanthropist has long supported environmental groups. Now, Robert Wilson is backing a different kind of organization

When Robert W. Wilson's name appears in print, the label "philanthropist" often accompanies it. Wilson, now in his early 80s, made a fortune on Wall Street, and he plans to give most of it away before he dies. His net worth was estimated at $800 million in 2000, and, according to Business Week, he gave away or pledged to give $512 million from 2004 through 2008.

Conservation and environmental causes are Wilson's biggest beneficiaries. Early in this decade, he pledged more than $100 million each in matching funds to the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society. He made a similar promise to the World Monuments Fund, which protects endangered works of art and architecture. He also supports music, arts and cultural institutions in New York City, where he lives, particularly the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Opera. Wilson says he's an atheist, but he gave $22 million in 2007 to provide scholarships for low-income children at Catholic elementary schools in New York because, he told an interviewer, Catholic schools "give a better education to their students than public schools do."

Of all the groups that Wilson supports, one stands out as unlike all the rest: the Federation for American Immigration Reform. FAIR, as it is commonly known, is the most important organization fueling the backlash against immigration and stands to gain almost $1 million from Wilson's largesse.

FAIR was founded 30 years ago by John Tanton, patriarch of the modern nativist movement and a FAIR board member to this day. Tanton has fretted about the "educability" of Latinos, warned of whites being outbred by others, said that "a European-American majority" is required to maintain American culture, and compared immigrants to "bacteria." He's corresponded with Holocaust deniers, former Klan lawyers, and key white nationalist thinkers for decades. He introduced top FAIR leaders to the president of the Pioneer Fund, a foundation created to encourage "race betterment" that funds studies of race and intelligence. He once wrote a major FAIR funder to encourage her to read the work of a radical anti-Semitic professor — to "give you a new understanding of the Jewish outlook on life" — and suggested the FAIR board ponder the professor's theories.

FAIR portrays itself as an authority on immigration issues. Its leaders have testified frequently before Congress and are often quoted in the news media. But the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which publishes this magazine, began listing the organization as a hate group in late 2007, saying its position on immigration was "rooted more in its anti-Latino and anti-Catholic beliefs than in policy concerns." The SPLC highlighted Tanton's role at FAIR and also noted that the organization has employed members of white supremacist groups in key positions; that some FAIR board members write for hate publications; that FAIR has promoted racist conspiracy theories about Mexico's secret designs on the American Southwest; and that it accepted $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund.

FAIR is delighted with Wilson's pledge, of course. In a fundraising appeal to supporters earlier this year, it said: "The Generous Support of Robert Wilson, one of the United States' most enlightened philanthropists … is providing you with an unprecedented opportunity to help FAIR build the muscle to stop the opposition in its tracks. After eight years of beating back relentless 'amnesty talk,' we now face a new administration fully committed to ignoring all opposition to mass amnesty and limitless immigration. … Mr. Wilson has committed nearly one million dollars over the next three years to match every dollar that current members give above their previous year's giving level. New contributions over $100 will also be matched dollar for dollar."

Wilson did not reply to messages left at his New York office requesting an interview to discuss his pledge to FAIR, and he did not respond to an earlier letter from SPLC President Richard Cohen on the same topic.

His support for the organization may seem surprising, considering the liberal recipients of some of his other contributions. Although most of the groups he supports have no obvious political agenda, Wilson has given generously to the ACLU Foundation ($2.3 million in 2006 alone) and the Drug Policy Alliance ($800,000 in 2007), which advocates for an end to the "War on Drugs," improved drug-treatment and education programs, and an easing or repeal of drug laws, especially those governing marijuana. A friend, Roger Hertog, was quoted in a recent Journal of Philanthropy profile describing Wilson as "the most politically incorrect person I have ever met."

Apparently, Wilson's interest in FAIR is based on the view that the supposed environmental benefits of ending immigration outweigh any negatives associated with FAIR and its founder. In fact, Tanton came to the immigration restriction movement via very similar concerns about population and the environment (he was an early activist with the Sierra Club and strongly supported Planned Parenthood). In addition, FAIR has run advertisements in recent years — many of them in "progressive" publications aimed at the political left — suggesting that halting immigration is the best way to conserve the environment.