John Tanton, a pioneer in immigration reduction activism, died last week. He founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Center for Immigration Studies, and other similar groups, as well as pushed legislation that would make English the official language. The Washington Post decided the best way to honor his life would be to smear him.
“John H. Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist who was the architect of a national anti-immigration movement that found expression in the policies of the administration of President Trump and who was labeled by watchdog groups as a thinly veiled white nationalist, died July 16 at a nursing center in Petoskey, Mich. He was 85,” read the opening paragraph of the Post’s obituary.
The obituary by Matt Schudel seemed interested only in airing opinions of Tanton from people who hated him. Schudel repeated the Southern Poverty Law Center’s slander that he was the “puppeteer” of the “anti-immigration movement.” The obit also mentioned that Tanton founded SPLC-designated “hate groups,” which include mainstream organizations such as FAIR and CIS.
Schudel quotes a random Republican saying in 1986 that Tanton’s groups “are a bunch of crazies . . . motivated by xenophobia and probably racism.” It quotes Carl Pope, a former head of the Sierra Club, denouncing him: “The whole idea of people trying to hijack an organization to advance their cause was outrageous,” Pope said in 2006. “And I found many of the things he had said since I had known him deplorable and unconscionable.” (In reality, Pope hijacked the Sierra Club and made it fanatically pro-immigration in order to please one megadonor.)
Tanton came to advocate immigration reduction out of conservationist concerns. He worked with the Sierra Club and other groups for many years before he was deemed a practitioner of “wrongthink” and purged. His immigration reductionism never caught on with the leadership of environmental groups.
It wasn’t just the SPLC and aggravated business-first Republicans who were quoted to trash Tanton.
“It’s sad,” Patrick Burns, former FAIR deputy director, told the Detroit News in 2017. “It’s like a dead cat in a well. It poisons a lot of good water. Tanton has been that cat for 30 years.”
No better way to mark a man’s passing than to evoke the image of a decaying feline corpse.
It is true that the SPLC and other groups have lambasted immigration reduction groups just because of Tanton’s comments. The Post notes that Tanton’s advocacy became controversial in the late 1980s after an internal memo was leaked. The memo asked provocative questions about what would happen if Hispanic immigration was left unchecked. Some of the questions asked in the memo included: “Do ethnic enclaves . . . constitute resegregation? As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion? Why don’t non-Hispanic Whites have a group identity, as do Blacks, Jews, Hispanics?”
The Post published some of these questions to imply Tanton was a thinly veiled white nationalist. Most of the memo concerned itself with the economic and cultural effects of mass Hispanic immigration and how America would be able to assimilate these newcomers. The questions were asked in the spirit of anticipating problems, fostering debate, and finding solutions.
Tanton himself disputed claims he was a racist: “I believe in the melting pot. I don’t care what the pigment in your skin is or the slant of your eyes.”
Besides the memo, the SPLC claimed Tanton was a dangerous extremist because of his private correspondence. The left-wing group trawled through thousands of letters and documents in Tanton’s archives at the University of Michigan to find the most damning statements. They found such offensive comments as this: “I have no doubt that individual minority persons can assimilate to the culture necessary to run an advanced society 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.”
This is hardly a radical position. The SPLC’s desire to uphold these views as proof Tanton was an extremist testifies more to their desperation than to his own beliefs.
Some conservatives have also attacked Tanton but from a different angle. They accuse him of being a eugenicist and an abortion supporter, thereby making the immigration groups he founded of also being eugenicists and abortion supporters. It is true that Tanton supported Planned Parenthood when he focused primarily on conservationist efforts. But his own views are not reflected by the immigration reduction groups. For instance, CIS executive director Mark Krikorian is staunchly pro-life.
Tanton’s legacy should be remembered for his courageous advocacy of immigration reduction and making English the official language. Whatever his unorthodox views, the man ensured that there would be pushback when the swamp wanted another amnesty. His groups were instrumental in stopping amnesty in the Bush and Obama years. The SPLC dubbed FAIR a hate group due to its effectiveness in the 2006 amnesty fight. FAIR’s policies influenced Trump and now shape the Republican Party’s immigration platform. Without Tanton and the groups he founded, America would be in far worse shape today. The crazy ideas of the 2020 Democrats would have been implemented a long time ago.
Tanton was a small-town doctor who decided to make this country a better place. Conservatives may not agree with his conservationism and they certainly would disagree with his support of Planned Parenthood, but they have to respect him as the archetypal concerned citizen. America is great because it allows ordinary citizens to impact our political process.
Tanton should be honored for the good he did. The Washington Post only saw fit to compare him to a dead cat. It’s clear the Post thinks the admonition against speaking ill of the dead applies only when the dead have the “correct” politics.
Photo Credit: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images