Four things you should know about the anti-immigration movement

A network of organizations has for years helped spread dangerous anti-immigrant ideas and policies. While groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) are often cited in the media in an apparent effort to provide 'balanced' coverage, these groups have been labeled hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Today, these organizations are advancing their ideas in the Trump administration, with devastating effects on our communities. Here’s what you should know: 

1.One person is the architect behind the most influential anti-immigrant organizations operating today. 

John Tanton, a retired ophthalmologist from Michigan, founded FAIR in 1979 to advocate for lower levels of immigration. He was initially interested in environmental conservation, became interested in controlling the size of the population, and then became dedicated to immigration restriction.  

But Tanton wasn’t merely interested in limiting the number of people coming to the United States and their environmental impact – he was concerned about the culture and language of immigrants, as well. He realized that those were sensitive issues, and FAIR didn’t want to be seen catering to xenophobes, so in 1983 he founded a different organization to advocate for official English language policies. Tanton soon started several other organizations including the CIS, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), the Social Contract Press, and NumbersUSA.

His strategy of spinning off different organizations was effective. Each of these projects advanced anti-immigration ideas and policies, testing the boundaries of acceptable anti-immigrant sentiment for different audiences, incubating different arguments, and deploying different tactics. This divide-and-conquer strategy helped Tanton’s ideas appear more widespread and representative of the public’s views than they actually are.

2. The national media often quotes these groups - and rarely provides context explaining their extreme views.

The media has played a role in amplifying the ideas promoted by these groups by quoting staff and providing little context. In one May 2018 article on the Trump administration’s immigration policies, the New York Times quoted the leaders of three of the Tanton groups, without mentioning that they belonged to the same network. Rather, the article calls FAIR a group that “advocates tough restrictions on immigration,” CIS “another hard-line group,” and NumbersUSA “a conservative immigration group.” Readers would have no idea that these groups are related and represent views that are not representative of the public's views on immigration.  

Between April and June 2018, these three groups were cited in 58 national news stories – on CNN and Fox News, in The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, USA Today, and NPR. Just three stories noted that the groups being cited had been designated as hate groups. 13 stories didn’t describe the groups’ positions at all. Six stories called them “Washington-based.” Thirteen framed the groups as merely favoring lower immigration or immigration restrictions. But the Tanton groups’ positions are much more extreme than that, favoring mass deportations, severe cuts to legal immigration, limited due process for immigrants, and changes to birthright citizenship. 

Dan Stein, then executive director of FAIR, wrote a 1995 op-ed in USA Today titled “We don’t need immigrants.” In a 2010 USA Today op-ed, NumbersUSA’s Roy Beck argued against birthright citizenship – a core part of the Constitution. In 2007 and 2013, the Tanton groups helped defeat bipartisan efforts by Congress to reform the immigration system.

3. Several of these groups have been designated hate groups.

While Tanton initially framed his anti-immigrant ideas in terms of environmentalism, it soon became clear that more xenophobic and even eugenicist ideas fueled his anti-immigration work. In the 1980s, Tanton asked in a memo, “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?” When the memo was published, several Board members resigned. Later Tanton wrote in a 1993 letter "I've come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that." 

In 1997, the Wall Street Journal exposed the links between eugenics and Tanton’s network of anti-immigrant organizations. “There are reasonable critics of immigration,” Tucker Carlson then warned, “but Dan Stein [the director of FAIR] is not one of them.” (Subsequently, Carlson has hosted Stein and others from the Tanton network on his show.) The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated FAIR and CIS as hate groups. But policymakers and the media continue to give these groups opportunities to air their anti-immigrant ideas. 

4. There are many connections between nativist groups and the Trump administration.

The Trump administration has drawn heavily on the ideas promulgated by the Tanton groups. The administration is making a CIS wish list reality – ideas from the group include recommendations to detain asylum seekers, undermine sanctuary city policies, encourage cooperation between local law enforcement and ICE through 287(g) agreements, and increase workplace raids by ICE. Key Trump advisor Stephen Miller was the keynote speaker at a 2015 CIS event.

But the nativist groups are not just supplying ideas to the administration, but staff. As America's Voice details, Kellyanne Conway spent years conducting polling for the groups before becoming part of the Trump campaign and administration. Kris Kobach worked for IRLI before joining the administration. Other former staff from Tanton groups to join or be nominated to the Trump administration include Julie Kirchner, Ronald Mortensen, Robert Law, Jon Feere, John Zadrozny, and Ian M. Smith

With names that sound innocuous FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA may appear to be independent groups interested in lower levels of immigration. But these groups are part of a network that advances extreme and harmful ideas that are rooted in a racist, exclusionary understanding of U.S. identity. Understanding who they are, what they want, and how they spread their ideas can help us resist their attacks on our communities.