Nearly every cause and issue has representation in our nation’s capital, especially when it comes to immigration reform. Whether legislators decide to vote or not on on this issue is almost a footnote compared to the number of groups that have been feverishly lobbying one way or another.
Some have been at it for a long time, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), easily the most influential conservative group on the issue. FAIR is headquartered in downtown Washington, D.C., and was founded in 1979. The organization says it has more than 250,000 members and supporters from both sides of the political aisle, and it advocates for changes in U.S. immigration policy that would reduce all levels of immigration, legal or otherwise. FAIR advocates a moratorium on immigration by anyone other than refugees and the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens because it says the current levels of immigration are too high. The organization argues for a reduction in immigration levels, a “time out” because there are loopholes in the law that are exploited and because the system is overloaded with an enormous backlog in immigration applications.
“Do any of these organizations that support immigration reform want to really fix the system? They’re just trying to accommodate, and immigrants respond to the messages that politicians have been sending, and that is that you have an advantage by coming here illegally first,” says FAIR president Dan Stein.
FAIR’s roots go back to a bizarre juxtaposition of controlling immigration as a way to preserve the environment. The group’s organizer and first chairman was Dr. John Tanton, a retired opthalmologist from Michigan who has been active in efforts to reduce immigration levels in the U.S. Tanton used his connections in several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, along with the group Zero Population Growth, to found FAIR, perhaps not coincidentally during a time in the late 1970s when there was a backlash against continued immigration from Latin America.
A proponent of “zero population growth,” Tanton also helped found two other groups that also advocate for an even more conservative approach to immigration policy: The Center for Immigration Studies, and Numbers USA. Tanton also advocates making English the country’s official language and co-founded U.S. English and ProEnglish, and is the publisher of Social Contract Press, which publishes books advocating stricter immigration controls.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Tolerance.org contends, “The organized anti-immigration ‘movement’ is almost entirely the handiwork of one man, Michigan activist John Tanton.” Columnist and former Reagan administration official Linda Chávez, who once worked for him, told the New York Times that Tanton was “the most influential unknown man in America.” SPLC calls FAIR and the rest of the groups he helped found the “Tanton Network.”
While he keeps a low profile, Tanton remains active and continues to serve on FAIR’s national board of advisors. From his hometown hundreds of miles away from the Potomac, the prolific opthalmologist has raised millions on behalf of groups that advocate a conservative stance on immigration, what some would even disparagingly call “nativist,” even though FAIR’s roots are not what are considered stereotypically conservative.
In its first iteration, FAIR argued that limited immigration would not only benefit the environment but also American workers concerned about competition for jobs from lower-paid foreign workers. Its earliest supporters included billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffet and prominent Democratic legislators such as Senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. Six years after the founding of FAIR, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) was spun off as a separate research group. In 1997, another group advocating limits on immigration, NumbersUSA, was founded by current executive director Roy Beck, a former journalist who specialized in covering the environment and once worked for Tanton as editor of his journal The Social Contract. Tanton helped Beck raise funds for NumbersUSA and lent him office space for several years. Beck is also the author of the book The Case Against Immigration, which argues that “runaway immigration rates are now savaging American society on many fronts.”
U.S. English is another part of Tanton’s anti-immigrant axis of evil. It was started in 1983 by then-California Republican Senator S.I. Hayakawa to push for adopting English as the nation’s official language. The group argues that they aren’t against Americans learning and speaking other languages, but that making English “official” would offer cohesion. Critics say the U.S. Constitution makes no provision for an “official language” and that English is already the country’s de facto language. According to some, efforts by U.S. English do nothing more than scare immigrants, prevent many of them from learning about government services, and create racial tension.
But U.S. English continues its push to make English the country’s official language and that includes circulating a petition against making Puerto Rico the country’s 51st state unless the island adopts English as its official language. It not only works for the adoption of English on the federal level, but also on the state level. Currently 31 states have English as their official language. The group is led by Chile native Mauro Mujíca, and was once led by Linda Chávez, but she resigned in the mid-1980s after a highly controversial Tanton memo was circulated that was slammed as stereotypical of Hispanics, with phrases such as: “Will Latin American migrants bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe)? Will Blacks be able to improve or maintain their position in the face of the Latin onslaught? Will Catholicism brought in from Mexico be in the American or the European model?”
Noted journalist Walter Cronkite served on U.S. English’s board of advisors, but also resigned after the memo was made public. Several well-known personalities continue to serve on board, including celebrities like Jeopardy host Alex Trebek, Terminator cum California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former golf great Arnold Palmer. Tanton himself left U.S. English after the memo came out in 1988, and he went on to found in 1994 a similar group, ProEnglish, which is based in suburban Washington, D.C., and shares an office with NumbersUSA.
In her column, Linda Chávez noted another odd connection. “The organizers of these groups and some of their current backers,” she wrote, “are pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia and assisted suicide, and have spoken approvingly of China’s one child policy. In their view, there are simply too many people in the U.S. (and the world) and they’d like fewer of them---a lot fewer. They hit on restricting immigration as the first line of attack in their war on population.”
FAIR, NumbersUSA and several other Tanton-related groups worked behind-the-scenes on several immigration initiatives on both the state and federal level, including working for passage of Proposition 187 in California, English-only laws on the state level, blocking legislation in 2002 that would have allowed some undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. while they sought to legalize their status, and raising a firestorm of calls in 2007 when then-President Bush proposed changes to immigration law that would have included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. It was also instrumental in drafting anti-immigrant legislation like Arizona’s AB 1070 and played a role in defeating the Senate bill passed last year by the “Gang of Eight,” including Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
What pays for all this activity? FAIR was criticized early on for taking money from the Pioneer Fund, an organization founded in 1937 to “advance the scientific study of heredity and human differences.” The Fund’s first president, Harry Laughlin, was an advocate of compulsory sterilization who received an honorary degree from the Nazi-controlled University of Heidelberg for his work in “ the science of race cleansing.” The Fund says that it supports projects that have a hard time finding money because they are “controversial,” but it has been accused of being a hate group. Among the projects it has funded is a study looking at a hypothesis that there is a variation in IQ among races, and that whites were genetically superior to other races. It’s current president, Jean-Philippe Rushton, is a Canadian professor who has been investigated for allegedly violating Canadian hate-speech laws, according to SPLC. According to Chávez, FAIR has received more than $1 million in grants from the Pioneer Fund.
Another funder has been the Colcom Foundation, which was founded in 1996 by conservative Cordelia Scaife May, of the Mellon family fortune and sister of the recently deceased Richard Mellon Scaife, who is credited with early funding of politically conservative causes and was on the board of the Heritage Foundation. May was a friend of Tanton and gave several million dollars to FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA.
The Colcom Foundation advocates for population control and has on its website, “The Foundation supports efforts to significantly reduce immigration levels in the U.S., recognizing that population growth in America is fueled primarily by mass immigration.” When Scaife May died in 2005, she left it more than $400 million in cash and property. The Foundation, based in Pittsburgh, is the single-largest funder of anti-immigrant groups in the country, says a recent study by the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL report found that in fiscal year 2011-2012, for instance, Colcom donated nearly $12 million to FAIR and other groups, an increase of almost $3 million from the previous fiscal year. In fact, ten groups, including FAIR, CIS, NumbersUSA, and U.S., Inc. (yet another Tanton-related foundation and the parent organization of ProEnglish and the Social Contract Press) received Colcom funding in 2012. Colcom gave nearly $9 million to just FAIR, CIS and NumbersUSA in 2012.
“These groups are some of the most active anti-immigrant organizations in the country and are seeking to derail the current push for immigration reform,” says the ADL report.
There are other conservative foundations that give to these umbrella groups with original ties to the Tanton “network.” Three of the four foundations run by the Scaife family, the ADL report shows, provide a large amount of funding. Those would be the Carthage Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Scaife Family Foundation. In 2012, the latest year for which information is available, the Carthage Foundation gave $200,000 to FAIR, while the Sarah Scaife Foundation gave $125,000 to FAIR and CIS, and $40,000 to NumbersUSA, while in the same year the Scaife Family Foundation gave $75,000 to CIS and NumbersUSA and $25,000 to ProEnglish. The conservative Weeden Foundation is another source of funding for FAIR and other anti-immigrant groups. Family member Don Weeden serves as NumbersUSA’s treasurer and his brother Alan is on the FAIR board. Alan Weeden himself donated $15,000 to FAIR in 2012.
“The numbers indicate that though the anti-immigrant movement relies on grassroots support to advance its goals, it does not necessarily rely exclusively on funding from its supporters,” says the ADL report. “With continued financial support from these foundations, anti-immigrant groups can sustain and promote their nativist agenda. Despite the many examples of bigotry and nativism stemming from the anti-immigrant groups they fund, these foundations show no signs of curtailing their funding [and] this is because the executives at these foundations not only hold anti-immigrant views but are actively involved in the anti-immigrant movement.”
SPLC’s Intelligence Files says, “Although FAIR maintains a veneer of legitimacy that has allowed its principals to testify in Congress and lobby the federal government, this veneer hides much ugliness. FAIR leaders have ties to white supremacist groups and eugenicists and have made many racist statements. FAIR’s founder has expressed his wish that America remain a majority-white population: a goal to be achieved, presumably, by limiting the number of non-whites who enter the country. One of the groups’ main goals is upending the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended a decades-long, racist quota system that limited immigration mostly to northern Europeans. FAIR President Dan Stein has called the Act a mistake.”
But Stein says that’s “name calling” and it’s not true that the group is racist or advocates white supremacy. The focus, he says, should be on the fundamental issue: that the U.S. has a broken immigration policy and it needs to be fixed. FAIR, Stein adds, is advocating for an immigration policy that makes sense and that it’s downright unfair to be characterized as a polarizing organization especially when groups that oppose FAIR haven’t acted in a way that would be considered objective, he says.
“It’s a shame that polarization gives license to engage in name calling and demonizing. Immigration is too important an issue to have it demeaned. We need to look at the issue as one country, as Americans.” Stein told LATINO Magazine. “Organizations that engage in that kind of demonization undermine themselves and demean our democracy with that scorched earth policy. We are interested in finding durable solutions to our immigration policy. We have national borders and they are entitled to be respected. This should be a unifying issue, not one that divides us.”
Stein says that on some issues, such as exploitation of workers, FAIR is on the same page as the groups they clash with on immigration reform. Stein is a member of the Coalition for the Future American Worker, an umbrella group of largely conservative groups that advocate for an immigration policy that works on behalf of blue-collar workers.
“There’s this generalization that Americans don’t want to do a particular job and that’s simply not true,” Stein says, adding that it’s this type of mentality that has been driving national immigration policy.
But it’s hard to find any Latinos who support FAIR, although many we contacted, such as the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) refused to go on the record, perhaps fearing retribution.
César Vargas is co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, a group that supports immigration reform legislation and advocates on behalf of undocumented youth, or DREAMers, says it’s all smoke and mirrors. “Regardless of the political talking points they have, they have a vision of non-immigration. They have an aggressive mission to curtail it. It’s a sad hypocrisy because we are all immigrants. We have a rich immigrant history in this country, whether it’s legal or not, and FAIR goes against what America stands for.”
Stein counters that the current policy seemingly teetering on an open-door immigration plan is simply not working and that Americans should come together to try and resolve it for the good of the country. “There’s always been an emotional component to this issue,” and that doesn’t solve anything, Stein says.
But groups that advocate for a comprehensive immigration reform that includes resolving the status of the country’s more than 11 undocumented immigrants say that FAIR is anything but. “What he says just simply doesn’t align with the facts,” says Vargas from the Dream Action Coalition. “Americans are not that afraid anymore of their neighbors. FAIR appeals to the fears of Americans that immigration is a bad thing when it’s not.”
Roberto Lovato, an immigration activist and former strategist at Presente.org, clashed with Stein several years ago, including over the use of the word “illegal alien” and participated in many discussions and debates with FAIR and others to stop using derogatory terms. Lovato argues that FAIR has appealed to the country’s lowest common denominator when it comes to talking about immigration. “What they’ve been able to do is mainstream hatred and anti-Latino rhetoric. A lot of their modus operandi is the criminalization of immigrations. They were very effective in making it okay to demonize immigrants.”
Stein counters that people who come into the United States illegally are indeed committing a crime and to say otherwise is to be disingenuous. “People are taking advantage of the system and coming here illegally,” Stein says. “There are people in the Obama administration who don’t even agree with immigration control. That is their policy. Look at the situation with all the unaccompanied minors from Central America at our southern border. They are here because they believe when they get here they can stay and that’s because there is a policy here of appeasement. There’s nothing more politically devastating to a chief executive than the appearance of not controlling one’s own borders. If you can’t manage the borders, how can you manage the nation? There is no real leadership on this issue.”
Immigration advocates contend that FAIR is losing its relevance because of the growing number of Latinos in the country that bring a different perspective to the issue of immigration. “Their brand is a declining industry. Their type of anti-immigrant rhetoric is on the fringe. It’s not the core anymore,” says Lovato. “And the more powerful the Latino community gets, the less relevant they get. We’re still living in FAIR’s world, but that is changing.”
They’ve been engaging in a ‘politics of fear,’ says political consultant Mickey Ibarra, president of Ibarra Strategies in Washington, D.C. “The majority of Americans support immigration reform, so do corporations. They organize around an emotional issue and give cover to those who oppose it and make it okay to oppose, but it is fear and prejudice against Latinos. Fear is the driving force among all those groups. Fear brings out the worst in us as a nation, rather than the best of us.”
By Patricia Guadalupe