Exposing The Tanton Network: The Bigoted Anti-Immigrant Movement

On the 2 year anniversary of the El Paso terrorist attack, Mark Potok highlights how the extremist Tanton Network shaped the anti-immigration movement.
In this June 13, 2018 photo, Nicole Hernandez, of the Mexican state of Guerrero, holds on to her mother as they wait with other families to request political asylum in the United States, across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. The family has waited for about a week in this Mexican border city, hoping for a chance to escape widespread violence in their home state. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

In this June 13, 2018 photo, Nicole Hernandez, of the Mexican state of Guerrero, holds on to her mother as they wait with other families to request political asylum in the United States, across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. The family has waited for about a week in this Mexican border city, hoping for a chance to escape widespread violence in their home state. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Mark Potok is an expert on the radical right who for 20 years was a senior official at the Southern Poverty Law Center. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.

The contemporary anti-immigration movement in the United States is largely the product of decades of organizing, fundraising, and ideological work by one man — John Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist who founded, funded, or otherwise nurtured more than a dozen nativist groups. The network of groups Tanton built up still dominates the politics of immigration in America, with one of those groups testifying to Congress at least 90 times, another at least 130 times, and a third playing a critical role in killing bipartisan immigration reform in 2007 and 2014. The network was also a key supporter of former President Donald Trump’s harshest and cruelest immigration policies.

Tanton died in 2019, but the legacy of his work is very much alive. Immigration reform has proved incredibly difficult, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, thanks largely to the political influence, lobbying reach, and allegedly nonpartisan studies produced by Tanton’s network. Under Trump, who was arguably the U.S. president with the most extreme nativist views in at least a century, the administration regularly relied on studies and other support from parts of the network to back its most draconian policies, including the so-called “Muslim ban,” the slashing of refugee programs, and opposition to protection from deportation of “Dreamers,” who were brought to America by their parents while still young children.

Even after Trump’s 2020 reelection defeat, his ideas and those of the Tanton network were still being actively championed by Stephen Miller, who was for four years Trump’s senior advisor for policy. Miller, who remains intensely focused on immigration issues, followed up his service to Trump by continuing to attack Democrats, President Joe Biden in particular, for allegedly being “soft” on immigration.

Tanton began his ideological odyssey on what is normally considered the political left, focused on the alleged threats of overpopulation and, in particular, its potentially negative effects on the environment. Over the decades, however, he began to adopt more and more far-right positions, including contempt for Latinos, Africans and other non-white immigrants, along with “low-IQ” individuals. He developed close relationships with white nationalists, Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites, and other extremists.

Tanton was a nearly lifelong enthusiast of eugenics, the idea of breeding a better human race by allowing only certain individuals to reproduce. But he also regularly attacked targets usually thought of as conservative, including many church hierarchies and faith traditions, big business, major philanthropists, and others. Particularly galling to a great many conservatives was Tanton’s enthusiastic support for worldwide abortion rights, which he saw as an important antidote to overpopulation.

In 2020, a group of about a dozen individuals, ranging politically from the center-left to the center-right, began meeting under the auspices of a grant from the Gilder Foundation administered by Rick Swartz, a longtime activist on immigration issues and founder of the National Immigration Forum. The central aim of the group, of which I am a part, was to try to fight back against the extremism embodied in the Tanton network, principally by exposing the true nature of Tanton’s beliefs and those who succeeded him.

To this end, I was asked to prepare short and up-to-date profiles of key organizations and leaders in the Tanton network. These subjects include Tanton himself; the Federation for American Immigration Reform and its current president, Dan Stein; the Center for Immigration Studies and its leader, Mark Krikorian; NumbersUSA and its chief, Roy Beck; and Stephen Miller. In addition, I’ve prepared a profile of The Camp of the Saints, a French novel that has become a key text of the nativist movement in the United States and elsewhere; another on the role of eugenics in the Tanton network; and, finally, a short piece illuminating how Tanton and others have frequently targeted faith traditions deemed too friendly to immigrants.

We are releasing these 11 profiles, along with this introductory essay, on Aug. 3, 2021, which is the second anniversary of the massacre of 23 people in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, the deadliest attack on Latinos in American history. The self-confessed killer told police that he had intentionally targeted “Mexicans,” and in a separate online manifesto complained of a “Hispanic invasion” and “cultural and ethnic replacement,” ideas that are central to Tanton and many of the groups he spawned. Our purpose is to underline how noxious ideology, like that nurtured by the Tanton network, can and frequently does ultimately lead to racist violence and political terrorism.

The key idea animating our group is that the extremism displayed by the Tanton network and related organizations has no place in the immigration debate. We absolutely support the idea of a serious debate on immigration, and hope to encourage moderate policies that protect our country while avoiding cruelty and contempt for immigrants. But we also believe that that debate should be guided by facts, not by racial animus and baseless conspiracy theories.

A very large number of organizations have done serious research on the Tanton network, and I have relied in great measure on their foundational early work. These organizations include the American Civil Liberties Union; the Anti-Defamation League; the Bridge Initiative of Georgetown University; the Center for American Progress; the Center for New Community; DiversityInc.; Right Wing Watch (a project of People for the American Way); the Southern Poverty Law Center; and the Western States Center. I have also relied on reporting by organizations including the Cato Institute; CNN; the Dallas Morning News; the Detroit Free Press; Fox News; The Hill; Los Angeles Magazine; National Review; NBC News; The New Yorker; The New York Times; the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review; Politico; Vanity Fair; The Wall Street Journal; the Washington Examiner; and The Washington Post.

Another resource is a book by Bob Worsley, a businessman, former Arizona state senator, and moderate Republican who successfully ran against the then-Arizona Senate president, an immigration extremist, in 2012. The Horseshoe Virus: How the Anti-Immigrant Movement Spread From Left-Wing to Right-Wing America (RealClear Publishing, 2020) is unusual in that it critically analyzes the Tanton network and its legacy from a conservative perspective.

Special thanks are owed to the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, whose leaders have graciously agreed to host these profiles, which we invite individuals and groups to reproduce on their own websites or in other venues. Our hope is that these research documents will provide useful material for all those, wherever they may stand on the political spectrum, who work toward a humane and rational reform of American immigration laws.

The following are two examples of profiles of players in the Tanton network. All 11 profiles are available at the CARR site.

Moments like these require unrelenting truthtelling. We take pride in being reader-funded. If you like our work, support our journalism.

Federation for American Immigration Reform

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), formed in 1979, is the single most important anti-immigration organization created by the late John Tanton, the racist architect of the contemporary American nativist movement. It describes itself as “a non-partisan, public interest organization with a support base comprising nearly 50 private foundations and over 1.9 million members and supporters,” and it boasts that it has testified to Congress more than 90 times. With a budget of nearly $14 million in 2019, it forms, along with two other Tanton-nurtured groups — the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA — the heart of the anti-immigration movement. Although FAIR concedes that immigration, “within proper limits, can be positive,” it regularly takes hardline positions on virtually all immigration issues.

It not only wants to abolish illegal immigration, but also seeks to cut legal immigration by more than two thirds. It wants to end birthright citizenship, the guarantee afforded to almost everyone born on U.S. soil by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution; end refugee programs; and revoke special protections against deportation for “Dreamers” brought to this country as children and others. It has blamed immigrants for environmental degradation, low working-class wages, violent crime (despite the fact that academic studies have repeatedly shown immigrants are less criminal than U.S. natives), welfare fraud, and more.

FAIR’s website claims that it opposes discrimination of all types, and for a time many observers took the group at its word. But in 1988, internal memos written by Tanton two years earlier came to light, with Tanton worrying about a “Latin onslaught,” questioning the “educability” of Hispanic immigrants, and warning that Latino fertility was far outdistancing that of white people. Also in 1988, it was revealed that FAIR had solicited grants (eventually totaling some $1.3 million) from the Pioneer Fund, a Nazi-friendly organization formed in 1937 to pursue “race betterment” and promote the genetic stock of whites from the original colonies. After that, evidence of the racist and eugenicist ideas of Tanton and FAIR leaders continued to accumulate.

In 2008, the Southern Poverty Law Center unearthed a trove of letters and other documents that Tanton had donated to a university library in Michigan — and the papers proved a veritable dynamite keg. FAIR’s founder, it turned out, had carried on friendly correspondences with white supremacists, Holocaust deniers, enthusiasts of eugenics like the Pioneer Fund’s principals, and others. Tanton, it became clear, was no multiculturalist — he worried that Latinos, Muslims, Africans, and any number of others were weakening American culture and fomenting the danger of inter-ethnic warfare. One sentence in a 1994 Tanton letter seemed to sum up the core of Tanton’s hardening ideology: “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”

There was more. In 1996, FAIR produced 51 episodes over the course of the year of a television talk show, “Borderline,” hosted by its longtime leader Dan Stein, who was then FAIR’s executive director and was promoted to president in 2003. The show featured a laundry list of extremist interview subjects, including Sam Francis, who later became the top editor of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens; Jared Taylor, who edits American Renaissance, a white supremacist journal; Lawrence Auster, who argued that America will be destroyed if it loses its white majority; Peter Brimelow, the proprietor of the racist VDARE website; William Lind, who railed against “cultural Marxism” and multiculturalism; and others. FAIR also trafficked in racist political propaganda.

In 2000, it ran a TV advertisement opposing the reelection of Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), an Arab American whose picture was featured next to a photo of Osama bin Laden along with the question, “Why is Senator Abraham trying to make it easier for terrorists like Osama bin Laden to export their wave of terror to any city street in America?” One staunch conservative, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), quit FAIR’s advisory board in disgust. “The trash that this crowd puts out is just beyond terrible,” he fumed. Four years later, another FAIR TV ad, in Texas, showing dark-skinned men running from police, was denounced as racist by both its target and that man’s GOP opponent.

FAIR regularly promotes radical propaganda. One remarkable example of this is its embrace of utterly baseless conspiracy theories about immigration — the “Aztlan” theory that claims that Mexico is secretly planning to “reconquer” the American Southwest, and the “North American Union” theory that asserts that elites in Mexico, the United States and Canada are secretly scheming to merge their countries. FAIR has also created fake front groups claiming to represent Blacks, Latinos, workers and “progressives” in a weak bid to enlist further support for its positions. And its fondness for eugenics has surfaced repeatedly over the years.

According to a 2013 study by the anti-racist Center for New Community, Tanton and FAIR advisory board members Sarah Epstein and Donald Collins Sr. (who are married and both former members of FAIR’s board of directors, and whose son in 2021 was chairman of the FAIR board) were all advocates of involuntary sterilization, with FAIR helping to fund promotion of the Quinacrine sterilization method, a dangerous procedure not approved by any country. The late Garrett Hardin, a close Tanton friend and a longtime member of FAIR’s board of directors, was a controversial eugenicist who wrote in a 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” that “[f]reedom to breed will bring ruin to all.” Tanton himself wrote a paper in 1975 entitled “The Case for Passive Eugenics” that promoted supposedly less noxious eugenicist policies like restricting childbearing to women between the ages of 20 and 35.

Here are a few noteworthy comments from FAIR and its officials:

“In any major city, the peace is disturbed by Latino, black, and Asian nationalist gangs, which in some cases are only the shock troops of ethnic movements seeking the racial dismemberment of the United States. In refusing to control immigration, the Federal Government is writing a script for ethnic civil war. Why?”
—FAIR website, 2002, quoting neo-Confederate ideologue Thomas Fleming

Muslims “are not coming here to become Americans. … [They are] promoting colonization of their own religion, of their own culture in towns and taking them over.”
—2004 essay by Susan Tully, FAIR’s national field director

“My position is that this idea of a multiethnic society is a disaster. That’s what we’ve got in Central Europe, and in Central Africa. A multiethnic society is insanity. I think we should restrict immigration for that reason.”
—Garrett Hardin, close Tanton friend, controversial eugenicist professor, and longtime
FAIR board member, in a 1997 essay published in Tanton’s Social Contract journal

“Can our country tolerate beheadings, be-handings, female genital mutilation, arranged marriages for 12 year old girls and murders of gays?”
—2013 essay in News With Views by Frosty Wooldridge, a member of FAIR’s advisory board since 2011, attacking Muslim immigration

“It is clear that there is a ‘fifth column’ movement in the United States that professes greater allegiance to a greater Mexico or a breakaway, separatist movement based on a Latino homeland.”
—FAIR website, 2005

“[T]he African worldview is totally different than that of Europeans. Their culture is diametrically opposed to ours. That’s why so many blacks are in prison.”
—Wooldridge, in a 2014 interview with the anti-Semitic American Free Press newspaper in which he also attacked Muslims and said immigration numbers mean “[w]hites in this country are doomed”

“What diseases are being imported into the US that have already been eradicated here? Many of these ‘children’ belong to dangerous gangs and drug cartels.”
—Tamyra Murray, in a 2014 Facebook announcement of a protest against undocumented children and mothers being relocated to a holding facility in Vassar, Mich. Murray was then the Michigan state advisor to FAIR and was also a liaison and speaker for Tanton’s US Incorporated

“I can make the argument that just because one believes in white separatism that that does not make them a racist. … I don’t think standing up for your ‘kind’ or ‘your race’ makes you a bad person.”
—Joseph Turner essay written in 2005, the year before FAIR hired him as its western field representative

“I have a secret plan to destroy America. … We must first make American a bilingual-bicultural country. … Having made America a bilingual-bicultural country, having established multiculturalism, having the large foundations fund the doctrine of ‘victimology,’ I would next make it impossible to enforce our immigration laws.”
—2000 speech to a FAIR conference by Richard Lamm, a former governor of Colorado who would later join FAIR’s board of advisers as co-chairman

“When illegals are caught (before they’re deported), they should spend several years turning big rocks into little rocks, in prisons that make Edmond Dantes’ Chateau D’If look like the Ritz Carlton. Troops should be stationed on our southern border with shoot-to-kill orders for anyone trying to enter the United States without a visa or proof of citizenship in hand.”
—2005 essay by Don Feder, a member of FAIR’s advisory board by 2007 at the latest

“Do we leave it to individuals to decide that they are the intelligent ones who should have more kids? And more troublesome, what about the less intelligent, who logically should have less? Who is going to break the bad news [to less intelligent individuals] and how will it be implemented?”
—1996 letter from Tanton, who founded FAIR and was still on its board

Stephen Miller

Senior White House Adviser Stephen Miller (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons License)

Senior White House Adviser Stephen Miller (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons License)

Even in an administration that was notorious for its harsh immigration policies, Stephen Miller, senior advisor for policy during Donald Trump’s four years in office, was known as a hardliner’s hardliner. Miller, who was intensely focused on immigration issues, was a leading proponent of Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban”; his drastic reduction in the program for refugees; the policy of separating undocumented children from their parents at the border; and the decision to prevent the publication of administration studies that showed that immigrants contributed a net financial gain, not a loss, to the American government.

Miller came to the Trump administration after serving as press secretary for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a notorious immigration hardliner in his own right before being named by Trump as U.S. attorney general. Miller, a right-wing activist since high school, previously served as an aide to two other highly conservative politicians, U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and John Shadegg (R-Ariz.).

While working for Sessions and later for Trump, Miller frequently used information and reports — many of them of highly questionable veracity — from the three major organizations nurtured by John Tanton, the racist architect of the contemporary anti-immigration movement: the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and NumbersUSA. In 2017, for instance, Miller defended one version of Trump’s “Muslim ban” by citing a CIS study claiming that 72 people who were “implicated in terroristic activity” came from the seven countries singled out in that executive order. Noting that most of those people were not charged with crimes related to terrorism, the Washington Post concluded the CIS study was “pretty thin gruel” and gave Miller three Pinnochios for repeating its claims.

The same year, Miller used CIS data to claim it cost 12 times as much to allow refugees into the U.S. as to help them in their native countries — but the CIS study he cited failed to account for immigrants’ payments of U.S. taxes. In 2015, before he joined the Trump campaign, Miller gave the keynote speech at a CIS conference, where he equated “comprehensive immigration reform” with “a massive, large-scale amnesty for illegal immigrants.” Miller, in a phrase, became the bridge between Trump and the Tanton network.

Miller has also shown a long-lasting penchant for figures on the extreme right. He adopted David Horowitz, a well-known anti-Muslim extremist, as a mentor while still in high school. Later, as a student at Duke University, he worked with Richard Spencer, a white nationalist anti-Semite, to raise money for an immigration policy debate. (Spencer later described himself as a mentor to Miller, a claim that Miller denied.) In 2016, Miller granted an interview to Alex Jones, an infamous conspiracy theorist. But it was in 2019, when a tranche of emails he had sent to a writer at Breitbart News was leaked to the Southern Poverty Law Center, that Miller’s full-throated extremism became indisputable.

The emails, from 2015 and 2016, showed Miller pitching a Breitbart writer various stories and arguments by urging her to look at materials he sent her from white nationalist publications like VDARE, named after the first English child in the New World; American Renaissance, edited by a man who has argued that black people are incapable of sustaining civilization; and Jones’ InfoWars. He also recommended citing The Camp of the Saints, a racist French novel that depicts “swarthy hordes” of illegal Indian immigrants taking over France. The book is a key text for white supremacists who warn of a “Great Replacement” of whites by non-whites. And he lauded Calvin Coolidge, who as president signed into law the Immigration Act of 1924, a racist quota system. After the revelations, 59 civil rights groups wrote Trump asking that he dismiss Miller. He refused to do so.

Here are a few of Miller’s comments from over the years:

“Joe Biden would be the best friend that child smugglers and child traffickers have ever had in the White House. … My God, if Joe Biden were to get elected, how many millions of children and families would be forced into the hands of these vicious criminals?”
—2020 call with reporters, arguing that if elected president, Biden would so loosen immigration policies that an explosion of human trafficking on the border would result

“I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched America’s soil.”
—Quoted in 2019 book Team of Vipers by Clifford Sims, who also worked in the Trump administration

“For half a century, American workers were sold out, betrayed by politicians, had their jobs shipped overseas and had cheap foreign labor imported to drive down their wages, and take away the wealth that they need to support their families.”
—2020 Fox News interview

“Cancel culture is indeed a very grave threat to American freedom. … It’s an effort at making people so afraid to speak their mind that a minority of radicals can effectively intimidate a majority of common sense Americans, and that’s often how totalitarians function.”
—2020 radio interview, attacking “political correctness”

“Here’s a shocking thing for your audience to consider. … Any foreign national — talk about foreign election interference — can mail in a ballot, and nobody even verifies if they’re a citizen of the United States of America.”
—2020 interview with Fox News, attacking mail-in ballots even though each state does verify the identity of persons requesting mail-in ballots

“For many members of the political left, the belief in a racist society is an article of faith — beyond all reason, question or rational discussion.”
—Column written for Duke University’s campus newspaper when Miller was a junior, attacking multiculturalism and citing “racial paranoia” in denying the idea of systemic racism

“It is the most radical immigration bill ever written, drafted, or submitted in this history of this country. It is breathtaking.”
—2021 interview with Fox News, attacking a bill that would give a pathway to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants, and that incorporated many provisions supported by Republicans

“We must save Americans from these immigrant criminals!”
—In a meeting of the National Security Council, according to an official cited by Politico in 2019

“Innocent people are going to get hurt. Innocent people are going to get killed. Innocent people are going to suffer irreparable damage as a result of that decision.”
—2021 Fox News interview, claiming that President Joe Biden was “in the vast majority” of cases refusing to impose deportation detainers on undocumented immigrants ending prison sentences. He said his “vast majority” claim was based on casual conversations with immigration agents

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.

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