A few years ago, anti-immigration ads began popping up in a number of progressive magazines, including this one. The ads displayed an environmental wasteland and suggested that immigrants were somehow the cause -- one showed an image of a congested highway with an adjoining paragraph about how immigration contributes to commuter traffic.
The ads were purchased by a network of anti-immigration organizations, all of them with ties to a man named John Tanton. According to the Center for New Community, which monitors the white nationalist movement, Tanton has fostered over a dozen groups that work to reduce immigration. Six of these organizations, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), have been cataloged as "hate groups" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but Tanton doesn't seem bothered by his critics. He even framed a copy of the center's 2002 investigation of him (titled "The Puppeteer") and hung it in his office.
Tanton is not the financier of this network -- his pockets only go so deep -- but he could safely be called its architect. In 1985, for instance, he decided that the movement required an "independent" think tank, and shortly thereafter the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) was founded. Otis Graham, an old friend of Tanton's, was named chair of the board. ("I'm a great believer in cronyism," Tanton has said, only somewhat facetiously.) The center remained under FAIR's umbrella for only six months; it seceded quickly enough that barely a trace of their former connection remains. Devin Burghart, a civil-rights activist who writes frequently about the anti-immigration movement, has said that Tanton has done for immigration politics "what Pat Robertson did for the Christian right. As a tactician, he's done a brilliant job."
A retired ophthalmologist, Tanton lives in Petoskey, Michigan, with his wife, Mary Lou. He has a ho-hum manner, referring to himself as a "farm boy," and waxing poetic about his backyard beekeeping operation. ("It raises interesting questions about the human enterprise," Tanton has said of the beehive.) He views people as primarily a nuisance and thinks that there should be far fewer of them. Before he founded FAIR in 1979, Tanton spent his free time on environmentalist initiatives, particularly those concerned about overpopulation. In the 1970s, he was president of Zero Population Growth and chair of his local Sierra Club chapter's population committee. But these days, his many affiliated organizations have few ties to the environmentalist community. FAIR publishes reports about the environmental impact of immigration once, maybe twice, a year; other groups will hold an event on the topic during slow news cycles.
Tanton's brand depends on a light touch. With few exceptions, such as FAIR, where he remains on the board, and The Social Contract, a quarterly magazine he founded in 1990, his name isn't attached to his initiatives. This allows the groups not to be burdened by his reputation, or one another's. NumbersUSA, which is led by a longtime colleague of Tanton's, can present itself as the gentler, more liberal arm of the immigration-restriction movement, while The Social Contract invites well-known conservatives and white nationalists to its annual workshops. This way, when they work together it appears like a magnanimous bipartisan effort, rather than what it is: a collaborative decades in the making.
Each of the organizations under Tanton's umbrella have concluded, perhaps not independently, that immigration should be reduced from almost a million people a year to less than 300,000, a return to pre-1965 immigration levels, before Congress abolished "national origins" quotas. They agree, too, that children born in the United States to undocumented parents should not be given citizenship -- the Fourteenth Amendment notwithstanding. In addition to the power of the network, many of these groups are influential on their own; NumbersUSA has a million members, and the CIS distributes its reports, according to its current director Mark Krikorian, "to every office in Capitol Hill."
The fact that many of these organizations are known as being conservative -- or even racist -- makes their ideas a hard sell among liberals and people of color. So new groups were formed to target those particular audiences. In 2006, FAIR spawned the short-lived Choose Black America, which only drummed up about 50 members, and the Hispanic American group You Don't Speak for Me, which was formed just in time for the "Day Without Immigrants" marches and petered out shortly after. The cover story of an issue of The Social Contract last year was a profile of Leah Durant, the executive director of Progressives for Immigration Reform.
PFIR, which launched in 2009, bills itself as an environmentalist group and argues that immigration "will only lead to more sprawl, more congestion, more pollution, and more degradation." The interviewer asked Durant if liberals were in a better place to influence policy, given the Democratic majority in Congress. Yes, replied Durant, who is only in her 30s but has mastered the delicate and ambiguous prose of politicking. "We believe that it is likely among liberals and Democrats who control both houses of Congress that the immigration issue will be decided. PFIR is in a key position to help determine the outcome."
Talking Points Memo has called PFIR "the latest front group of the anti-immigrant John Tanton Network." The organization has tried to downplay its connection to Tanton: The fact that Durant used to work as an attorney at FAIR -- before her tenure at the Justice Department in the George W. Bush administration -- is absent from her bio on PFIR's Web site. In fact, no ties to FAIR are disclosed on PFIR's site, despite a number of overlaps. Frank Morris, the vice president of the group, and Richard Lamm, a board member, have leadership roles at FAIR. Lamm, a Democrat and the former governor of Colorado, and Tanton are old friends. In 2004, Lamm made a widely circulated speech titled "I have a Plan to Destroy America," in which he warned that diversity only brings "turmoil, tension, and tragedy."
Durant (who did not respond to requests for comment), an African American woman and a self-described progressive, is chummy with a number of Tanton-affiliated groups. She attended a workshop hosted by The Social Contract in October and has been corresponding with Peter Brimelow, the editor of VDARE, an online publication funded in part by Tanton, about writing a piece for him. VDARE is named after Virginia Dare, the first English child to be born in the colonies, and while Brimelow refutes that the magazine's views are "white nationalist," its Web site is primarily dedicated to grumbling about multiculturalism. When I asked Brimelow if he was surprised that Durant would be willing to write for him, he responded, "You mean why she's comfortable writing for a group associated with the KKK?"
PFIR assumes that liberals are concerned about the environmental effects of immigration but are too politically correct to say so. The group's only video advertisement features a young man wearing flannel and with a tidy amount of scruff on his face -- he'd blend in easily in Park Slope, Brooklyn. "Concerned about America's huge carbon footprint? Then you should be concerned about immigration," he says. Then he looks at the camera and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, "This is hard for me to admit, too."
In 1970, just months after the first Earth Day, Tanton attended a conference in Chicago called the Congress on Population and the Environment. He was seated -- by "serendipity," in Tanton's telling -- next to William Paddock, the co-author of Famine, 1975!, which argued that most people had just over five years to live. Paddock "took a little bit of shine to me," Tanton recalls, and introduced him to the juggernauts of the population-control movement. Among them were Willard Wirtz, the former secretary of Labor, and Garrett Hardin, a well-known author and a founder of the environmental studies program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. (Hardin believed that the elderly ought to be sparing, and so in 2003, just days after his 62nd wedding anniversary, both he and his wife committed suicide.)
Concern about overpopulation was all the rage in the 1970s. Paul Ehrlich's 1968 best seller, The Population Bomb, predicted that in "the 1970's the world will undergo famines -- hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." Even in the United States, Ehrlich warned, the time of "vast agricultural surpluses are gone." Ehrlich was the perfect prophet for the television age; he spoke in punchy headlines and became a regular guest on The Tonight Show. He was one of those rare pop professors who maintained his reputation among his colleagues. David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, held Ehrlich in high esteem; it was Brower who beseeched him to write the book in the first place.
But as the 1970s passed, food supplies actually improved: 37 percent of the global population was starving in 1969, compared to about 15 percent today. William Freudenburg, an environmental-studies professor in Hardin's program at U.C. Santa Barbara, says that by the mid-1980s he realized that overpopulation, especially in the United States, was a "distraction." Environmentalists in the 1970s were too focused on individual consumption: "Eighty-nine percent of all resource use and loss in the U.S. economy comes from organized producers, not individual consumers," Freudenburg says. "All of the stuff we usually focus on -- recycling our paper, aluminum cans, and everything else we buy -- comes to about 3 percent of the total."
Population control always sounded dangerously close to social Darwinism -- Thomas Malthus, the first demographer to warn of the dangers of overpopulation, believed that the government should discourage the poor from having children. After China instituted its one-child policy in the late 1970s and rumors of female infanticide and forced sterilization started circulating, "population control" began appearing in quotes in United Nations reports; it made people a bit queasy. The reproductive-rights movement shifted its lexicon as well. Tanton, who had become the president of the Northern Michigan branch of Planned Parenthood in 1965, stepped down from his post in 1971 when a woman's right to control her own body -- rather than population control -- became the dominant talking point about abortion.
In his first forays into anti-immigration activism, Tanton called attention to his conservationist background. He founded FAIR in 1979 and named Roger Conner, an environmental lawyer, as the executive director. An early profile of FAIR in The Ann Arbor News states, "Tanton started FAIR ... because he is concerned about what an unstemmed tide of refugees will do to the nation's resources. Conner, who has been active in the Michigan environmental movement since the early 1970s, agreed to serve as FAIR's executive director for the same reason."
But concerns over the environmental effects of immigration didn't seem to resonate with the public. FAIR quickly shifted its talking points to issues that did, claiming that excess immigration poses an affront on American culture, contributes to rising crime rates, and steals jobs from American workers. In 1983, Tanton founded U.S. English, which sought to make English the official national language, in part to fund his other initiatives. "This was the cash cow," says Linda Chavez, who served as the president of U.S. English after stepping down as President Ronald Reagan's public liaison. "It was a lucrative issue. We had a $7 [million] or $8 million budget."
Over the years, Tanton's network became more enmeshed with the white nationalist movement. Between 1985 and 1994, FAIR received $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund, a eugenics research group, and Tanton started corresponding with a number of well-known white nationalists, including Wayne Lutton, who is now the editor of The Social Contract.
To this day, Tanton calls himself a "progressive," both in the Teddy Roosevelt sense, with his evangelical pride for the American way, and in his political leanings -- he has voted for Ralph Nader several times. Brimelow, the editor of VDARE, tells me that Tanton is motivated by a "genuine interest in trees," while Tanton's critics argue that his environmentalism is just a cover-up for his racist agenda. Although Tanton does like trees -- he has a favorite pair of ashes in the forest just north of his house -- he obviously likes white nationalists, too. In decades' worth of his personal letters archived at the Bentley Historical Library in Ann Arbor, it's clear that he became more influenced by white-nationalist ideas as time passed. In 1993, he wrote a letter to Hardin: "I have come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist, it requires an European-American majority and a clear one at that. I doubt very much that our traditions will be carried on by other peoples."
Tanton's views about immigration were once far more common among environmentalists. The Sierra Club advocated for a restrictive policy on U.S. immigration well into the 1990s. But the issue became divisive, and Sierra Club leaders concluded in 1996 that the wisest decision was to adopt a policy of no policy. "The Sierra Club, its entities, and those speaking in its name will take no position on immigration levels or on policies governing immigration into the United States," the group announced that year. Population-control enthusiasts argued that neutrality was cowardice in disguise and encouraged the group to readopt the old policy. The Sierra Club put it to a vote. The proposal failed -- by a 20-point margin in 1998 and then by a whopping 84-point margin in 2005.
"The club's growing alliances with other progressive causes made it difficult for us to support limiting immigration," John Michael McCloskey, a longtime executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote in his memoir. The Sierra Club, which made efforts in the 1990s to broaden its base among minorities, didn't want to risk alienating its new supporters. The environmentalist movement had taken on a more inclusive perspective -- its members were thinking more globally -- and the connection between migration and overpopulation wasn't as clear; after all, immigrants don't materialize at the border.
When the environmental movement moved beyond its concerns about overpopulation, Tanton couldn't accept it. He was either too committed to population control, to the white-bred hue of the movement, or both -- and he led the subsection of the population-control movement that agreed with him headfirst into immigration reform.
"Immigration control is a foolish way to create an environmental perspective," says Adam Werbach, who was the president of the Sierra Club in 1998. "It attacks people who are suffering, it allows people who are rich to be unaccountable, it's out of touch with the realities of changing demographics, and it's terrifically unpopular." According to FAIR, of the 25 largest U.S. environmental organizations, only three advocate for restricting immigration, and Tanton served as the president of one of them before it changed its name from Zero Population Growth to Population Connection. FAIR, and other Tanton-affiliated organizations, argue that environmentalists "want to avoid the controversy that comes from discussing immigration reform."
But, Freudenburg says, overpopulation is finally being put into context. "There are not many areas of science where we're still using the logic from 40 years ago," he says.
Today Tanton is somewhat demobilized with Parkinson's disease. He spends most of his time "just dozing in the sun, while otherwise woolgathering." (We corresponded by e-mail. He said he didn't have the energy to speak on the phone or in person.) He relies on the younger leaders of his network to spread his message.
Last May, PFIR's Durant was a guest on The Surreal News, a liberal radio show in Sarasota, Florida. Larry, one of the show's hosts, who goes by his first name only, opened the interview: "I was commenting this morning to someone that I haven't heard a lot of discussion about overpopulation for years and years. It was there a long time ago, probably before you were born, and then all of a sudden disappeared."
Durant didn't seem to recognize that this was a criticism. "I think you're right, and I think people are becoming more and more aware of the population issue in the United States," she responded. "I think folks are really starting to feel the impact of that." Larry replied with an observation from his daily commute: "Most of us feel it trying to drive to work in the morning and wonder where all those people come from."
But connecting congested highways to immigration is a pretty big leap. At a panel discussion hosted by the Center for Immigration Studies last summer on the topic of immigration and the environment, Phil Cafaro, a philosophy professor at Colorado State University and an adviser at PFIR, claimed that "if Americans are serious about doing our part to limit global climate change, the multiplier effect of population growth is too important to ignore." Immigrants, he said, are the main driver of U.S. population growth and, if they settle down, they tend to have larger families, on average, than native-born Americans. Such growth exacerbates problems like urban sprawl, overcrowded schools, and congested roads. "If we had time, I think I could show that every major environmental problem in the U.S. is made worse by population growth," Cafaro said.
His fellow panelist Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a professor at George Mason University, seemed befuddled by the whole event. "I'm actually going to adopt as a guiding assumption something which I actually don't believe, which is that environmental considerations should be the most important driver of immigration policy," he said, squinting and looking uneasily at the other panelists. Light went on to refute Cafaro's points. Urban sprawl, he said, is related to population growth but is certainly not its byproduct -- Detroit and St. Louis have shrunk population-wise while their city lines continue to inch closer to the suburbs. Much of the midsection of the United States is actually depopulating, and while immigrants tend to settle along the coasts, it's disingenuous to say that they're the ones to blame for any environmental hazards. After all, immigrants are not consuming or driving at the same levels as most American citizens are.
Light also spoke about the recent G-8 resolution, through which the U.S. pledged to reduce its emissions by 80 percent before 2050. Limiting immigration, Light explained, wouldn't make a dent. There might even be a global advantage to having a larger population in countries where such goals exist. "We're the only ones in the current architecture of the international climate treaty where we actually have a motivation to put a price on carbon, to do whatever it takes to essentially start the economic machine to make it so that the emissions profile of Americans, whether they're immigrants or not, necessarily has to go down," Light said.
The moderator, CIS research director Steven Camarota, asked how Light expected to see those environmental restrictions passed through Congress. "It's a huge political battle; the Democrats could lose control of the House because of things like this," Camarota said. "If you ask me which is easier, I would say obviously the immigration battle is a lot easier than the environmental."
Camarota's argument assumes that limiting immigration would have the same environmental impact as a cap-and-trade bill. This is an absurd thought, not least because most lawmakers who support reduced immigration don't even believe in climate change. NumbersUSA grades members of Congress based on their stance toward immigration; fewer than one out of five lawmakers who achieved a grade of B or higher voted in support of the American Clean Energy and Security Act.
There might be individuals among Tanton's generation of environmentalists who are amenable to his cause -- aging stalwarts of the population-control movement who have few organizations to which they can turn. However, it's hard to imagine Durant having much success convincing younger environmentalists, who have never seen Paul Ehrlich on TV, that they should be concerned about immigration control.
Of course, that's not to say she -- and others in John Tanton's network -- won't keep trying.