The Green Roots of Anti-Immigration Groups

The NYT has an interesting and revealing profile of John Tanton, the former President of Zero Population Growth (now known as “Population Connection”) who went on to found some of the nation’s most prominent anti-immigration organizations, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and U.S. English. I covered a bit of this in my 1995 book, Environmentalism at the Crossroads, and discussed the overlap between population control and immigration control, but the NYT report has more detail. The story illustrates how Tanton’s obsession with the threat of population growth led him to embrace a nativist anti-immigration agenda. What began as a concern about numbers morphed into concerns about culture and color.

While Dr. Tanton’s influence has been extraordinary, so has his evolution — from apostle of centrist restraint to ally of angry populists and a man who increasingly saw immigration through a racial lens.

Mindful that the early-20th-century fight to reduce immigration had been marred by bigotry, Dr. Tanton initially emphasized FAIR’s identity as a “centrist group” and made arguments aimed at liberals and minorities. He allowed few local FAIR chapters, warning that a stray demagogue might “go off half-cocked and spoil the whole effort.” . . .

Dr. Tanton founded local chapters of Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club and became the national president of Zero Population Growth. Unable to interest colleagues in fighting immigration, he formed FAIR in 1979, pledging in his proposal to make it “centrist/liberal in political orientation.” The first director, Roger Conner, had made his mark as a liberal environmental advocate. . . .

FAIR was founded on complaints about the immigrants’ numbers, not their culture. But Dr. Tanton feared that they were failing to assimilate. He formed a new group, U.S. English, to oppose bilingual education and demand that government agencies use English alone. . . .

Dr. Tanton grew more emboldened to challenge taboos. He increasingly made his case against immigration in racial terms.

“One of my prime concerns,” he wrote to a large donor, “is about the decline of folks who look like you and me.” He warned a friend that “for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”

Dr. Tanton acknowledged the shift from his earlier, colorblind arguments, but the “uncomfortable truth,” he wrote, was that those arguments had failed. With a million or more immigrants coming each year — perhaps a third illegally — he warned, “The end may be nearer than we think.”