In mid-July, an aging man suffering with Parkinson’s disease quietly passed away in a Michigan nursing home.
Most people probably never heard of John Tanton. His obituary was little noted outside circles that meticulously trace every shift by extremist groups with a clear anti-immigrant bent.
But Tanton, who once touted theories of eugenics, was a key figure for the most restrictive voices on immigration during the last 40 years.
And the nation will continue to be affected by Tanton’s ideals through the organizations that he helped found. And not for the better.
Tanton’s imprint is evident in the pervasive nativism and outright ignorance that dominates conversations on immigration. In President Donald Trump, Tanton gained his highest acolyte.
Efforts to end U.S. citizenship by birth, the promotion of English language only, dreams to revert to decades old visa patterns that favored European migrants over all others: Tanton favored each of these ideas through the years.
It’s a fascinating legacy for a man who was an ophthalmologist by training and was considered liberal in some ways. He and his wife, who survives him, once helped organize a Planned Parenthood clinic. He circled into immigration control through environmentalism via concerns about overpopulation and its effect on the land.
The seeming inconsistencies are why Tanton deserves attention.
Too often, people want their ogres to wear Klan hoods or to act like the self-proclaiming white nationalists and neo-Nazis who marched through Charlottesville, Va., chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
What is perhaps more pernicious is how an offensive idea can be burnished with a veneer of respecability over time. This can happen through the establishment of civic organizations devoted to the idea, by the hiring of adept lobbyists and well-spoken propagandists to distract attention from the true origin of the idea. This was Tanton’s path.
“Demography is destiny,” he once wrote. “We decline to bequeath to our children minority status in their own land.”
Among his less savory acts, he founded the Social Contract Press and set about publishing and promoting an English-language version of the French novel “The Camp of the Saints.” The 1973 dystopian book, embraced by many on the alt-right, tells of marauding hordes of non-white refugees who overrun Western Civilization.
Tanton’s longstanding impact will be via the dozens of organizations that he helped found, among which are the Center for Immigration Studies, NumbersUSA and FAIR, or the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
FAIR once employed former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach through its legal arm, sending him around the nation to find gullible cities willing to pass harsh reforms against migrants, which sometimes led to financially devastating lawsuits. Kobach also had the ear of Trump, imbuing him with deceitful notions like the supposed massive voter fraud by undocumented immigrants and the recent attempts by the administration to undercut the veracity of the U.S. Census by including questions about citizenship.
Most recently, Kobach has been cavorting at the U.S.-Mexico border, along with Steve Bannon and other figures of the right, erecting a wall with private donations.
The Center for Immigration Studies was founded in 1985 and is regularly cited by media, often with a notation that the group is conservative or pro-immigration control. What typically goes unmentioned is the research group’s ties to Tanton and his unsavory beliefs in the genetic superiority of whites. Younger journalists might not even know the background.
Tanton’s full story is yet to be written. A court is to decide whether many of his papers, donated to the University of Michigan, will be made public anytime soon. An agreement negotiated with Tanton has them sealed until April of 2035.
Tanton merely took longstanding fears about immigrants and found new avenues to launch them. He probably understood that the cause of limiting asylum claims or stalling reforms that would make it easier for people apply for legal entry to the U.S. is best served by refraining from outright racist talk.
Rest in peace, John Tanton. I wouldn’t wish the cruelties of Parkinson’s — which also afflicted my immigrant father — on anyone. But, unfortunately, your worst ideals live on.