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Keeping America Empty (cont’d)

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But by the late ’90s, the Republican Party, reluctant to alienate the growing Latino electorate and under pressure from its corporate backers, largely dropped immigration from its agenda. Meanwhile, the earlier crackdowns that FAIR had pushed for failed to stanch the flow of immigrants. As day laborers started appearing in formerly lily-white suburbs across the country, backlash politics began to gain momentum below the mainstream political radar.

The problem, from an organizing standpoint, was that FAIR wasn’t in a good position to take advantage of this. “FAIR is a big problem,” says Peter Brimelow, an anti-immigration activist who runs the Web site, “because its natural constituency is conservative nationalists, but its operatives are basically liberal and centrist and terrified by Pat Buchanan.” In fact, in the early days of the organization, the leadership was scared of its own members. The board resisted setting up local chapters for fear of who might show up and kept a tight lid on FAIR’s stationery, afraid some member would get their hands on it and write something “demagogic” that would discredit the group.

Tanton recognized this situation was untenable. Notes from a 1982 FAIR board meeting report that Tanton was “very concerned that FAIR has acquired only 4,000 real members in three years, and believes it is time to change our methods.” Crisscrossing the country, Tanton found little interest in his conservation-based arguments for reduced immigration, but kept hearing the same complaint. “‘I tell you what pisses me off,’” Tanton recalls people saying. “‘It’s going into a ballot box and finding a ballot in a language I can’t read.’ So it became clear that the language question had a lot more emotional power than the immigration question.”

Tanton tried to persuade FAIR to harness this “emotional power,” but the board declined. So in 1983, Tanton sent out a fundraising letter on behalf of a new group he created called U.S. English. Typically, Tanton says, direct mail garners a contribution from around 1 percent of recipients. “The very first mailing we ever did for U.S. English got almost a 10 percent return,” he says. “That’s unheard of.” John Tanton had discovered the power of the culture war.

The success of U.S. English taught Tanton a crucial lesson. If the immigration restriction movement was to succeed, it would have to be rooted in an emotional appeal to those who felt that their country, their language, their very identity was under assault. “Feelings,” Tanton says in a tone reminiscent of Spock sharing some hard-won insight on human behavior, “trump facts.”

More than anyone, Tanton served as the liaison between the “mainstream” anti-immigration movement, whose arguments were still rooted in population and job concerns, and its natural allies on the far right, who saw an epic struggle to maintain America’s national and racial character. He courted mainstream conservative donors, like the Scaife family, as well as the fringe Pioneer Fund, whose current president argues that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites. He had the Social Contract Press translate, publish and promote The Camp of the Saints, a starkly racist apocalyptic novel about a wave of Indian immigrants overrunning France. In 1996, Tanton coauthored The Immigration Invasion with Wayne Lutton, who sits on the advisory board of a publication put out by the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens. Editor of the Social Contract Press since 1998, Lutton now occupies an office just a few feet from Tanton’s.

In 1985, Tanton began convening an annual retreat for the immigration restriction movement’s activists and writers, called WITAN, after Witenagemot, an Old English word for “wise council.” The gatherings draw everyone from labor economist Vernon Briggs, a self-described “liberal Democrat,” who worked on Texas union campaigns led by Caesar Chavez, to Jared Taylor, a white nationalist who publishes the journal American Renaissance. “Blacks and whites are different,” Taylor wrote in a recent article on Hurricane Katrina. “When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western Civilization–any kind of civilization–disappears.”

Taylor has attended the WITAN gatherings since their inception and says despite the divergent backgrounds of the participants, everyone is collegial out of respect for Tanton. “There’s a real leadership quality in a man who can bring together so many different points of view to work together towards a common goal.”

In a 1986 memo written to stimulate discussion at the upcoming retreat, Tanton mused on the effects of immigration on California, wondering if Latin American immigrants would “bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe)” and “the lack of involvement in public affairs.” Later he fretted that Latinos’ higher birth rates would lead to increased political power: “On the demographic question: perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!”

Two years later, as U.S. English was campaigning for a referendum in Arizona, opponents leaked the memo to the press, prompting early supporters like Linda Chavez and Walter Cronkite to publicly sever their ties to the organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center reprinted the memo in a 2002 cover story in its magazine, documenting Tanton’s various connections to hard right proponents of extremist racial views.

Tanton calls the “pants down” section “a throwaway line I should have thrown away.” He bristles when I bring up the SPLC article, calling charges of racism a means of avoiding the real questions about immigrant quotas and policy enforcement. And he’s so practiced at responding to this criticism, he easily swats away my repeated attempts to pin him down: Does he think white America is imperiled by the growth of the Latino population? How does he feel about the views of the white nationalists with whom he has allied himself?

“What’s the definition of racism?” he snaps. “I have a different type of definition: taking race into account. They”–meaning groups like SPLC who criticize him– “are noticing it. They’re saying that race is important to them.”

Though he plays the victim, Tanton wants it both ways: harnessing the political power that comes from tapping into nativist grievances and building bridges with outright racists, while at the same time dismissing any of the negative consequences that might come from such partnerships. Perhaps Tanton shares the views of his allies, or perhaps he simply understands that if what people like Taylor euphemistically call “cultural” issues were taken out of the equation, there wouldn’t be the same flood of phone calls to senators. “If the 12 million illegal immigrants in this country were all good-looking, English-speaking, white people,” Taylor told me, “the opposition to illegal immigration would be considerably less.”


After I return home, Tanton sends me a barrage of follow-up correspondences: a correction for the birthrate of India, which he’d misstated, a Paul Krugman column on immigration, and an article from a local conservation newsletter about the havoc an invasive fungus called the Phytopthora has wreaked on the American chestnut tree.

In our interviews, Tanton returned time and again to the threat invasive species pose for the American ecosystem. Reading his note, it occurred to me that what has tied together all of Tanton’s activism–from setting up local preserves, to reducing highway billboards, to his 25 years in the anti-immigration movement–is a fear of contamination, a desire for some idealized notion of purity, a landscape and nation undefiled.

The irony is that on the one issue where he’s directed the bulk of his effort, the means he’s chosen haven’t proved particularly effective. Thanks in large part to Tanton’s efforts, over the last two decades the number of hours border guards spend on patrol has increased eightfold and the border patrol’s budget has gone from $151 million in 1986 to $1.6 billion by 2002. It hasn’t worked.

The problem is that nowhere else in the world do two countries with such disparate relative wealth share such a massive border. The ultimate way to reduce immigration is, as one writer once put it, to fix the “the poverty, population and distribution of wealth” in the countries that people are leaving.

That was John Tanton in the ’70s, when he first started writing about immigration. Going through Tanton’s early writing, I was struck by how much emphasis he put on the brain drain problem that immigration caused for developing nations, and the need to address underlying inequality between countries. With a liberal like me sitting in front of him, Tanton cogently and persuasively recites these arguments.

But conservative talk radio hosts, and Lou Dobbs viewers, and Minutemen along the Arizona border aren’t focused right now on development, or reducing inequality. They want fences. They want enforcement. They want arrests.

So that’s what John Tanton wants, too.

Christopher Hayes is the host of MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes. He is an editor at large at the Nation and a former senior editor of In These Times.

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