June 1, 2010


Guilt by Association: The most influential anti-immigration network in America tries to convert liberals to its cause. (Jessica Weisberg | June 1, 2010, American Prospect)

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. [...]

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." [...]

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.

The Darwinist Right's natural allies are on the Left.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 1, 2010 6:08 AM
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