The Anti-Immigrant Movement
By Heidi Beirich
Southern Poverty Law Center
Since the late 1990s, the United States has experienced an explosive rise in nativism, or anti-immigrant sentiment, to a level of intensity not seen in nearly a century. This nativist backlash has been fueled by demographic changes resulting largely from an influx of Latino immigrants and by projections that whites will make up less than half the U.S. population by 2042. Hundreds of anti-immigrant groups have sprung up in all parts of the country, especially since 2005.
Though a nation of immigrants, nativist backlashes have occurred many times in American history, perhaps most notably in the 1920s. At that time, the Ku Klux Klan had as many as 4 million members and recruited largely on the basis of anti-Catholic (and, more specifically, anti-Irish and anti-Italian) sentiment. The anti-immigrant movement of the period ultimately resulted in the passage of the racist Immigration Act of 1924, which outlawed all Asian immigration and instituted national origin quotas favoring Northern European immigrants. The act stood until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act finally abolished the national origin quota system that had sharply limited the number of non-white immigrants.
Today’s anti-immigrant movement has Latin Americans in its sights. Nativist groups contend, with little and no empirical evidence to back them up, that Latin American immigrants contribute disproportionately to a host of societal ills – from poverty and inner city decay to crime, urban sprawl and environmental degradation. Nativists view Latinos as destroying American society and replacing it with an uncivilized and inferior foreign culture. Many also believe there is a secret plot by the Mexican government and American Latinos to wrest the Southwest away from the United States in order to create “Aztlan,” a Latino nation.
The most important modern nativist and the founder of many of the movement’s key contemporary organizations is a Michigan ophthalmologist by the name of John Tanton. Interestingly, Tanton came to immigration issues from the left. A Sierra Club activist starting in the late 1960s and a backer of Planned Parenthood, Tanton was highly concerned with population growth in the United States and, for a time, headed the Sierra Club’s Population Committee. By the late 1970s, Tanton had decided that immigration was a root cause of most environmental degradation. He also became increasingly concerned about its effects on American culture and society, a thought process that led him to racial concerns.
In the late 1970s, Tanton began to build a multi-organizational movement. He laid out his strategy in 1986 in secret memos, called the WITAN memos, that proposed, among other things, the creation of multiple think tanks to focus on the negative effects of immigration. He also suggested, in somewhat oblique language, a takeover of the Sierra Club by nativists.
Through his foundation U.S. Inc., Tanton channeled thousands of dollars to several organizations that sought to restrict immigration. In addition, the foundation has run several anti-immigrant programs itself, including The Social Contract Press (listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), Pro English and, until 2002, NumbersUSA, perhaps the most important grassroots nativist organization. In 1979, Tanton founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group. Because of its ties to white supremacists and the beliefs of Tanton, the SPLC designated FAIR as a hate group in 2007.
Unfortunately for Tanton, the WITAN memos, which he shared with the leaders of FAIR, were leaked to The Arizona Republic in 1988. The memos – the first public indication of Tanton’s racism – were riddled with bigoted statements. In them, Tanton demeaned Catholics and questioned the “educability” of Latinos. Several prominent figures, including newsman Walter Cronkite and conservative Republican Linda Chavez, left their positions at Tanton’s U.S. English, where he then served as chairman, after the disclosures. Tanton, too, quit the group amid a storm of negative publicity. But that didn’t deter his ambition to spark a crackdown on immigration. Between 1980 and 2002, Tanton had a hand in either the founding or the funding of 13 anti-immigration groups, many of them well known. And he remained the leader of FAIR until the early 1990s. He now sits on FAIR’s board.
Tanton has openly said that one of his main inspirations for taking on immigration was The Camp of the Saints, a 1973 French novel that lays out a lurid vision of dark-skinned, Third World hordes destroying European civilization. Tanton’s publishing outfit, The Social Contract Press (TSCP), continues to sell the book, calling it “gripping.” A 1994 edition of the book published by Tanton’s TSCP carried an afterword from author Jean Raspail claiming that the “proliferation of other races dooms our race … to extinction.” When it was published, Tanton wrote that he was “honored” to republish it. “We are indebted to Jean Raspail for his insights into the human condition,” Tanton wrote, “and for being 20 years ahead of his time. History will judge him more kindly than have some of his contemporaries.”
In 2009, the SPLC’s Intelligence Report published a report revealing a great deal more about Tanton’s racial extremism that was based on Tanton’s private correspondence, which he had lodged in the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library. Tanton’s letters showed, among other things, that he has for decades been at the heart of the white nationalist scene. He has corresponded with Holocaust deniers, former Klan lawyers and the leading white nationalist thinkers of the era. He introduced key FAIR leaders to the president of the Pioneer Fund, a white supremacist foundation set up to encourage “race betterment,” at a 1997 meeting at a private club. He wrote a major 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 that the entire FAIR board discuss the professor’s theories on the Jews. He revered John Trevor Sr., the principal architect of the Immigration Act of 1924 and a rabid anti-Semite whose pro-Nazi American Coalition of Patriotic Societies reportedly was indicted for sedition in 1942.
Tanton shared his racist ideas with leaders of the many projects he funded. In 1996, for example, he wrote Roy Beck, head of the immigration restrictionist group NumbersUSA (and then an employee of Tanton’s U.S. Inc.), questioning whether Latinos were capable of governing California. “I have no doubt that individual minority persons can assimilate to the culture necessary to run an advanced society,” Tanton said in his letter to Beck, “but if through mass migration, the culture of the homeland is transplanted from Latin America to California, then my guess is we will see the same degree of success with governmental and social institutions that we have seen in Latin America.” Referring to the changing California public schools, Tanton wondered “whether the minorities who are going to inherit California (85% of the lower-grade school children are now ‘minorities’ — demography is destiny) can run an advanced society?”
In the late 1990s, a time of relatively high levels of Latino immigration into the United States, populist anti-immigrant anger began spreading across the nation. In 1998, a revealing rally occurred in the small town of Cullman, Ala., where a protest was held featuring the burning of both Mexican and United Nations flags. While the rally was attended by only a few people, it included top officials of groups that had previously been thought of as mainstream — including FAIR and the California Coalition for Immigration Reform — together with an unrobed Klansman. The mix showed how racism informed the movement from the very start.
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