Last month, as parents arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border were separated from their children and transferred to detention centers more than a thousand miles away in the Pacific Northwest, as a father of two languished in federal custody after delivering a pizza to a military base in Brooklyn, and as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents lured undocumented workers in Ohio into a break room with doughnuts before detaining them, Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE, was speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, at an event hosted by the Center for Immigration Studies. “A lot of people want to attack ICE. I see it every day. They want to call ICE racists, they want to call us Nazis,” he said. However: “We’re simply enforcing the laws on the books.”
Homan, who will step down next month, came out of his brief retirement early last year to run ICE at President Trump’s request. A 35-year veteran of law enforcement whose father was also a cop, Homan is every part the jack-booted thug. On this occasion, he was playing the role for an audience of think tank staffers and lanyard-toting nerds. “Don’t vilify the men and women of ICE, don’t vilify the men and women of Border Patrol for simply doing their jobs,” he said. “If you think ICE is racist—is Congress racist because they enacted these laws? Think about that for a minute. The men and women of ICE deserve thanks from this country.”
While the Center for Immigration Studies bills itself as an independent, non-partisan research organization, it is in fact a key node in a small network of think tanks and nonprofits, founded and directed by a man whose private correspondence contains praise for anti-Semites, fascists, and race scientists of various ideological backgrounds, many of whom would go on to figure prominently in today’s so-called alt-right and financed largely by one of the oldest and wealthiest families in America. That man is John Tanton, an aging ophthalmologist from Michigan; his benefactor was Cordelia Scaife May, heir to the Scaife family fortune, a branch of the Mellon family. Neither were world-historical political masterminds, but they were vectors for world-historical forces: The institutions they created together show more clearly than most how capitalism and white supremacy are mutually constitutive; how the ruling class uses racial resentment to reinforce its rule; and how the spoils of imperialism are redeployed toward maintaining the internal colonies, racial hierarchies, and economic order of our age.
Between 2010 and 2015, Scaife May’s primary funding vehicle, the Colcom Foundation—the net assets of which are nearing a half-billion—poured more than $72.5 million into the Tanton network, most of which would not have existed without Scaife May’s support in the first place. In 2015 alone, financial filings show, Colcom contributed at least $19.2 million to the Tanton network, including $7.4 million to its flagship organization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. FAIR’s total revenue in 2015 was $8.5 million. “One of the lasting legacies of John Tanton, aside from building the organized anti-immigrant movement we see in America today, is his devotion to developing revenue streams for these groups,” Heidi Beirich, the director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, wrote to me in an email. Without Scaife May’s money, “the movement would be much less effective.”
In 2007 and then again in 2013, the United States Congress seemed on the verge of passing substantial reforms to the country’s immigration laws, with support in both cases from the sitting president and significant swaths of corporate America. In both instances, the Tanton network managed to kill the possibility of change; now, after decades of work and tens of millions of dollars, that network and its allies are finally in power, its ideas and personnel animating and working within the Trump regime. “Tanton’s long term goal was to get ‘like-minded’ officials to be appointed to the immigration committees in Congress,” Beirich wrote, “but with the election of Donald Trump, we’re now seeing a steady stream of staffers of nativist groups joining the ranks of the administration and helping to shape policy, which is an extremely disturbing trend.” Political appointees in every immigration enforcement agency as well as presidential advisers and an assistant secretary of state nominee include Tanton network posts on their resumes.
“What will it take to finally turn the tide decisively in our favor?” Tanton wondered in a September 4, 1997 letter. “Is it a new set of ideas? Is it a new set of arguments about old ideas? Is it some unforeseen disaster? Would developing a population policy do it? Is it just a question of money? What would we do if we had more money?” Two decades later, he would have his answer.
John Tanton was born in Detroit in 1934 and grew up on his mother’s family farm, where his father, anticipating the waves of white flight in the decades to come, moved them following a three day “race riot” in 1943. After graduating from high school, Tanton studied agriculture and chemistry at Michigan State University before going to medical school at University of Michigan and becoming an opthamologist. Throughout, he maintained an interest in issues of environmentalism and conservation, which in turn led him to the question of population. “I began to wonder why all of these conservation problems were cropping up,” Tanton recalled in an oral history of himself. “I became convinced, and I don’t recall exactly how, that increasing numbers of people were part of the problem.”
Initially, Tanton, along with his wife, Mary Lou, looked to family planning organizations, setting up a Planned Parenthood clinic in northern Michigan and talking to new mothers in the maternity ward of a local hospital about not having more children. “Women who have just had a child are usually highly motivated not to have any more for a while,” he remarked.
By the early ‘70s, Tanton had begun looking for further tools of population control, toying with an idea he called “passive eugenics” and eventually beginning to wonder about the impact of immigration on population growth. “I found virtually no one was willing to talk about this!” he said. “It was a forbidden topic. I tried to get some others to think about it and write about it, but I did not succeed. I finally concluded that if anything was going to happen, I would have to do it myself.” And so he did, although not entirely by himself—what Tanton’s archives, held by the University of Michigan, show is a man who sought out and cultivated wealthy benefactors in America’s capitalist class, teasing out their most paranoid fantasies and asking them for money.
The largest and most influential of these, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Tanton founded in 1979. The board of directors included several other advocates for population control, as well as Sidney Swensrud, former president and chairman of Gulf Oil, and William Paddock, an environmental activist who introduced Tanton to Cordelia Scaife May, heir to Pittsburgh’s billionaire Mellon family, one of the richest and most influential in America. In one 1983 memo, between anecdotes about him mocking black women in labor and overweight people trying to fit into eye-exam chairs, an aide notes that Tanton wants to “get close enough to Cordy to become her advisor in a decade or so.” (Cordy was Scaife May’s nickname.)
The Mellon family fortune was built on oil, steel, and war, as well as politics and a willingness to protect their wealth by any means necessary. Scaife May’s great-grandfather, Judge Thomas Mellon, a banker and financier described in a Communist Party USA pamphlet from 1933 as a “studious old skinflint,” once wrote that the spreading struggles of the late 19th century between the capitalists and the working class “indicates a demoralized condition of public sentiment, which may require blood to purify.” Her great-uncle, Andrew Mellon, a banker, served as Treasury secretary to Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, dedicating himself to rolling back (or working around) the gains of the early 20th century Progressive movement, particularly the income tax. His policies in office encouraged the speculation of the 1920s, which ended in the Great Depression. “During the 11 years he held the office of Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon’s private fortune and that of his family leaped from the hundreds of millions to over a billion,” the CPUSA pamphlet reads. “Mellon served not merely himself but his class, and in serving his class served himself.”
The more the family’s fortune grew, the more hideous their home life became. Cordelia and her brother, Richard, were raised by the family’s staff in a home that was dominated by their mother’s alcoholism. Both siblings would also grow up to be alcoholics, their lives defined by bullying, corruption, and violence: one of Richard’s friends killed himself in front of him; Cordelia’s second husband’s death was also ruled a suicide, and she suspected that Richard had somehow been involved. The two did not speak for nearly 25 years.
All of this old Judge Mellon seems to have foreseen while contemplating the consequences of his accumulated wealth across posterity. In 1885, he wrote, as quoted by Jane Mayer in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right: “The normal condition of man is hard work, self-denial, acquisition and accumulation; as soon as his descendants are freed from the necessity of such exertion they begin to degenerate sooner or later in both body and mind.” A self-deprecating recluse, Cordelia named her home outside Pittsburgh “Cold Comfort,” a reference to the 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm, which features a female protagonist “of every art and grace save that of earning her own living.”
Like Tanton, Scaife May was an amateur naturalist and avid conservationist—passions that would prove vectors for racist paranoia. Tanton’s letters to her over the years are filled with groveling and obsequiousness, punctuated by encouragement of the reclusive millionaire’s most outlandish fears. A long paragraph toward the end of a March 21, 1995 letter describes pleasant activities like bird watching and visiting with Immigration and Naturalization Services—a precursor agency to DHS and ICE—officers in Nogales, Arizona. “It’s great fun to sit in the yard and watch the acorn woodpeckers, and the half dozen species of humming birds that inhabit the area,” Tanton mused. “We will also want to visit the INS at Nogales, since the illegals are now coming through Arizona following the (more or less) crackdowns that have been instituted at El Paso and San Diego.”
(Taking donors and other interested parties on trips to the U.S.-Mexico border is a fundraising tactic that Tanton groups still use “to illustrate dramatically the illegal immigration situation,” as Tanton put it in his oral autobiography. “The best place to see this is at San Diego. We developed a good relationship with the border patrol there. They would take us out late in the afternoon to see the general lay of the land. We looked over the area called the Soccer Field, right down on the border. We could see people collecting on the Mexican side, cooking their meals, getting ready for the dash into the United States when the sun finally went down. Then we would go back out with the border patrol at night and use their infrared night scopes to watch people cross and to see the mounted border patrolmen apprehending them. Some of us went up in the helicopter and also got that view. It’s a very dramatic and telling experience, so much so that we set up a regular system of border tours in order to give people this experience.” One of Tanton’s groups, the Center for Immigration Studies, still hosts these tours.)
In a letter to Scaife May from Oct. 6, 1997, Tanton responded to her concerns about “sub-replacement fertility rates in many of the developed countries.” (In other words, Scaife May was worried that white people were not having enough babies—a concern she shares with members of Congress like Paul Ryan and Steve King.) Tanton assured his benefactor that his advocacy of population control would not obscure his commitment to white supremacy: “The idea behind the population movement was not those of us who thought population was a problem would adopt permanent sub-replacement fertility, and eventually disappear from the scene, handing our territory over to the more fertile, and thereby lose the battle.”
The relationship was a long and productive one: Just two years after expressing his desire to become Scaife May’s “advisor” in 1983, Tanton described her as FAIR’s single biggest supporter, followed by board member Swensrud, the former Gulf Oil chairman. (The Mellon family held a controlling interest in Gulf Oil for decades.) “That relationship is pretty well under control,” Tanton reported. His notes show that he was already thinking about how the childless scion would distribute her estate.
In 2005, facing a terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis, Scaife May asphyxiated herself with a plastic bag, leaving behind an $825 million estate. In the years following her suicide, filings show, the Colcom Foundation (also named in reference to Cold Comfort Farm), which was Scaife May’s primary funding vehicle in life, received $441,886,012 from Scaife May’s estate and the Cordelia S. May Family Trust—another, more opaque funding vehicle—as well as all of her personal property and more than 450 acres of real estate. Between 2005 and 2015, the most recent year for which records are available, Colcom contributed at least $108 million to the Tanton network, the bulk of it going to Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies, and NumbersUSA, three of the biggest anti-immigration think tanks that Tanton either founded or nurtured. Both FAIR and CIS are SPLC-designated hate groups; Roy Beck, director of NumbersUSA, gave a speech at the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens’ National Conference in November 1997.
“My audiences have been all over the map in terms of ideology and interests,” Beck wrote to me in response to questions submitted via a spokesperson. “My speaking never implied agreement with my audiences, nor did it imply that my audiences agreed with me. That’s a wonderful thing about keeping communication open in a pluralistic society. Having said that, I strongly reject the CCC’s racial agenda, and various CCC internet campaigns have condemned NumbersUSA’s insistence that race should play no role in immigration policy or the debate about it.”
In response to questions about Tanton’s relationship with Scaife May and Colcom’s funding of the Tanton network, John Rohe, the foundation’s vice president of philanthropy, directed my attention to a biography he wrote in 2002 of Tanton and his wife, Mary Lou. Before working at Colcom, Rohe ran one of Tanton’s foundations, U.S. Inc; his book does not mention Scaife May. FAIR did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesperson for CIS, Marguerite Telford, accused me of writing “some little hit piece” and ignored further inquiries.
In 2007, with majorities in both chambers of Congress ahead of the presidential election, Democrats, with the support of President George W. Bush, sought to pass comprehensive immigration reform, intending to override a filibuster from the likes of Jeff Sessions with more moderate Republicans’ help. Their efforts failed, both because many labor unions and immigration justice groups were ambivalent about the legislation—it would have paired a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants with more draconian border enforcement and a guest-worker program—and also thanks to an astroturf opposition campaign organized by FAIR and CIS as well as NumbersUSA, which had benefited greatly from Scaife May’s death two years earlier.
“I believe the foundation had a lot more money after Mrs. May’s death. You can check that,” Beck wrote to me. From 2002 to 2004, the “immigration-reduction organization,” as it describes itself, received $255,000 from the Colcom Foundation; from 2005 to 2007, it received $6.4 million. “We had big work to be done during the period of intense efforts to pass a mass amnesty and to increase the number of foreign workers competing for jobs and wages,” he explained.
The money was well spent: The Tanton network, and NumbersUSA in particular, “lit up the switchboard for weeks,” Mitch McConnell later told the New York Times. “And to every one of them, I say today: ‘Your voice was heard.’”
Colcom continued funding the network—usually around $10 million per year spread across a half-dozen organizations—and by the time Democrats brought comprehensive immigration reform back onto the agenda in 2013, the Republican Party had shifted such that people like Sessions were no longer an embarrassment but exemplary. In C-SPAN footage from markup hearings on the “Gang of Eight” legislation, a CIS staffer, Janice Kephart, temporarily serving as counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, can be seen providing notes and whispering in Sessions’ ear. When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost a shock primary challenge that many (including CIS) saw as a referendum on immigration, what tepid Republican support there had been for reform evaporated.
At the time, it seemed as though this would be the extent of the Tanton network’s influence: impeding reform efforts through the careful cultivation of influence with select members of Congress and a relatively small but mobilized activist base. Then Donald Trump revealed just how deep the nativist current in American politics still runs.
It was clear from the outset, of course, that Trump’s presidential campaign would be built around fear of immigrants and people of color; however, the Scaife May-Tanton network’s influence lent an ideological coherence that might otherwise have been lacking. Representatives from NumbersUSA and CIS reportedly met with high-level Trump campaign officials throughout the presidential race, and Trump himself cited CIS research in speeches, campaign ads, and his now-deleted immigration plank. “That’s how you define success if you are a think tank,” CIS director Mark Krikorian said last year. Today, personnel from the Scaife May-Tanton network (or friendly to it) have been installed in key positions throughout the Trump administration; a number of policies the Trump campaign supported and that the administration has pursued appear to be drawn directly from proposals incubated within the Scaife May-Tanton network.
Stephen Miller, long a friend of the Tanton network, joined the Trump campaign from Jeff Sessions’ office in January 2016; he would soon be joined by Jon Feere, legal policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies. Both men are now working in the Trump administration: Miller, of course, in the White House, and Feere as a senior adviser to acting ICE director Thomas Homan. “It has been an honor to work as a policy advisor for the Donald J. Trump for President campaign and I hope to continue my service within the administration,” a blurb at the top of Feere’s resume, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, reads. “An ideal position would allow me to help craft immigration policy while providing a defense against agenda items favored by the Washington establishment.”
FAIR’s former executive director, Julie Kirchner, is currently ombudsman at USCIS; before that, she was as an adviser at CBP. During her tenure there, she helped draft the RAISE Act, Trump’s proposed legislation to reduce legal immigration and cut refugee acceptance by half; after it received Trump’s endorsement, Stephen Miller defended the bill by citing CIS. In November, Miller invited Krikorian, who once lamented that Haiti “wasn’t colonized long enough” to benefit from slavery, to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to discuss the administration’s immigration policies. Miller’s old boss Jeff Sessions has also cited the group’s specious research to defend political claims: When pressed for empirical data to back up the attorney general’s claim last year that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs,” the Department of Justice provided editorials written by CIS staffers. Various Tanton groups attended ICE stakeholder meetings last year, including CIS, FAIR, IRLI, and NumbersUSA. “We appreciate all chances to represent the public interest on immigration matters,” Roy Beck wrote to me.
Two FAIR lobbyists now hold positions in the Trump administration: Robert Thomas Law, who is actually the group’s former lobbying director, is now a senior policy adviser at USCIS; Maya Noronha, who was part of FAIR’s team lobbying against comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, is now a special adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Other, more high-profile Trump allies have connections to this network as well: Kellyanne Conway worked as a pollster for FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA for decades before joining Trump’s presidential campaign and then the White House; Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was leading the president’s campaign to prove the existence of massive voter fraud only to find himself held in contempt of court, is counsel to the Immigration Reform Law Institute, FAIR’s legal arm. In February, IRLI claimed in a press release to have filed a recent legal brief “at the request of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”
Many of the policies that have come to define the Trump immigration regime can be mapped onto wishlists produced by the Tanton network at various points in its history. One, prepared for members of Congress by FAIR in 2005 and identified by Rewire.News earlier this year, included demands for an end to family “chain migration,” an end to the visa lottery, and an unprecedented investment in the Border Patrol. Barely two months into office, the Daily Beast reported, the Trump administration had discussed, proposed, or made policy out of more than a dozen items from a 79-point list published by CIS in April 2016.
Following one of Trump’s first executive orders on “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued a memo explaining, in part, how DHS would start detaining more undocumented immigrants, including people seeking asylum. This echoed Item 29 on CIS’s list, which, as the Daily Beast noted, demands that asylum seekers be held in DHS detention facilities. “Doing so will restore integrity to an out-of-control system that encourages both border surges and asylum fraud,” the CIS document alleges. Item 40 on CIS’s list advocates that immigrant families who pay for their children to be smuggled out of countries like Honduras and El Salvador and into the United States—a dangerous journey that some families deem preferable to the violence of letting their children stay where they are—be investigated and prosecuted for “child endangerment in cases where the minor is abused during the northward journey.” A February 2017 DHS memo confirmed that the department would begin pursuing such cases: “Regardless of the desires for family reunification, or conditions in other countries, the smuggling or trafficking of alien children is intolerable.” Item 72 called for the formation of a “victims advocacy unit...providing services to those who have been victimized by illegal alien criminals.” In April 2017, the Trump administration launched the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) Office; people quickly began using the office’s hotline to report family members, neighbors, and romantic partners they suspected of being undocumented immigrants to the federal government.
Almost a year and a half into his administration, Trump’s immigration policies have continued to reflect the Tanton network’s proposals. Both the CIS document from April 2016 (Items 28-31) and FAIR’s November 2016 recommendations to the Trump transition team recommend a more critical view of asylum claims; specifically, CIS maintains that asylum claims should not be granted to victims of domestic violence, a move that would block tens of thousands of people, mostly women, from finding refuge in the United States. In June, Jeff Sessions ordered immigration judges to stop granting just such claims, agreeing with a brief filed by IRLI, FAIR’s legal arm, at Sessions’ invitation.
CIS has applied similar scrutiny to the idea of Temporary Protected Status, which items 32 and 33 of its April 2016 document assert should be “used sparingly and appropriately, if at all.” The CIS document demands that the president “return ‘temporary’ to the spirit of the law, as was intended when the category was created to provide a humanitarian respite for aliens whose home country confronts a calamity such as a hurricane, earthquake, or other act of God.” Late last year, Trump began doing just that, revoking TPS for 300,000 immigrants from Nicaragua, Haiti, El Salvador, Nepal, and most recently Honduras. “The disruption of living conditions in Honduras from Hurricane Mitch that served as the basis for its TPS designation has decreased to a degree that it should no longer be regarded as substantial,” a DHS statement on the decision read.
State Department officials who criticized the administration’s evisceration of TPS were ignored, according to the Washington Post. Late last month, Trump nominated Ronald Mortensen, a CIS fellow, to serve as assistant secretary of state for Population, Refugees, and Migration, running the State Department bureau that oversees aid for refugees and stateless people, though his pending confirmation is far from assured.
Items 41-43 of the CIS document demand that the administration sharpen its enforcement practices at workplaces, expanding the use of the E-Verify program and ramping up ICE audits and raids: Trump’s 2019 budget proposal includes $23 million to make E-Verify mandatory for employers nationwide; at a press conference in December, Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE, declared that he wanted to see a “400 percent increase” in worksite enforcement operations. “We’re not just talking about arresting the aliens at these work sites,” he said, “we are also talking about employers who knowingly hire people who are unauthorized to work.”
At the bottom of the Trump administration’s repressive anti-immigration apparatus is an idea referred to within the Tanton network as “attrition through enforcement.” Clearly, the nativists argue, there are too many undocumented people in the United States to deport them all, and just as clearly to create a path to citizenship would be to reward ostensibly criminal behavior. The solution, according to the Tanton network, is to make life in the United States so intolerable for people fleeing murder, rape, and kidnapping that they return from whence they came. Before Trump came to power, this policy was most fully articulated in Arizona’s SB 1070, drafted by Kris Kobach and passed with support from the private prison industry, the very text of which reads: “The intent of this act is to make attrition through enforcement the public policy of all state and local government agencies in Arizona.” Thanks to litigation brought by groups like the National Immigration Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, SB 1070 has largely been defanged since its passage in 2010; neither this nor the fact that hardly anyone ever “self-deports” has dissuaded the Trump administration from enacting an immigration regime animated by this idea. “If you’re in this country illegally, and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable,” Thomas Homan told Congress last year. “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.”
Trump’s immigration regime has ripped into the country’s already fragile social fabric: attendance at schools in areas where ICE conducts raids dips precipitously in their wake; rates of sexual assault reporting among the Latinx population in Houston and Los Angeles have plummeted, while the fear of deportation caused some undocumented women to drop domestic abuse cases; about 71 percent of people in ICE custody are held in privately owned detention centers rife with sexual violence, run on slave labor, and not subject to transparency laws like the Freedom of Information Act; the worksite raids that Homan promised would increase fourfold have brought devastation to rural communities where economic growth is dependent on populations of immigrants and refugees; and even as Trump demands that his Homeland Security secretary “close down” the border, his administration is separating migrant children from their families, putting them into state custody. Parents detained at the border have been told that they will be reunited with their children if they volunteer to be deported; multiple administration officials have either implied or outright claimed that the current escalation of enforcement tactics is intended as a deterrent to potential future migrants. Refugee shelters have been ordered to direct pregnant teenagers in their care to anti-abortion clinics. Children are torn from their families’ arms and tortured or medicated into submission. “These aren’t people,” the president recently said of unauthorized immigrants. “These are animals.”
One only has to look to the cancellation of Temporary Protected Status for over 300,000 people and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals for nearly 700,000 more to see the fundamental contradiction of the nativist immigration regime: In practice, policy and legislation built upon the principle of attrition through enforcement criminalizes more and more people living in the United States simply for being here, increasing the number of people categorized as undocumented without necessarily providing a mechanism to remove those people from the country. Therein lies an opportunity not only for cruelty and sadism but also profit.
Since the 2016 election, according to a report from the Center for Popular Democracy, Wall Street behemoths JPMorgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo, and BlackRock have all increased their shares in the nation’s two largest prison companies, CoreCivic and GEO Group, financing the growth of a $5 billion industry with gargantuan loans: the two companies are now carrying a total of $1.94 billion and $1.18 billion in debt, respectively. CoreCivic’s most recent annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission lays out the logic of carceral capitalism in brutal terms. As the February filing explains, the company’s growth is contingent upon obtaining new contracts from the government for prisons and detention centers, which in turn depends on the culture and politics of incarceration. “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts,” the report reads, “or through the decriminalization of [immigration].” Last year, CoreCivic and GEO Group made $3.2 billion from government contracts; according to SEC filings, $985 million came from ICE contracts alone.
To be an undocumented person in America is to inhabit a living, revenue-generating nightmare.
Throughout his life, John Tanton has denied that he was a racist, accusing critics of being “smear merchants.” To be a racist, Tanton seems to have imagined, is to be crude and unsophisticated—impossible to reconcile with his self-conception as a man of science and letters. “I believe that ideas rule the world, and that the pen is mightier than the sword,” Tanton said in one of his oral histories. “I have all along seen the immigration battle as really a skirmish in a wider war, a wider war of fundamental ideas.”
Thanks to Tanton’s very own archives, however, we know that the ideas he wielded most masterfully were racist paranoia and the possibilities of a vast reserve of financial capital. His correspondence with donors and political allies reveal a casual anti-Semite and eugenicist of varying vulgarity who expressed his racism in the evasively pseudo-intellectual language of white nationalism. “Does the addition of Santeria and voodoo help things out? How about a larger Muslim population, with all the conflict that applies for some of our values, and with our Jewish population? And what about the general proposition of just having a more highly variegated populace—where is the core that holds the whole thing together? This concept needs a lot of work,” Tanton asked in one letter. “I’m still bothered by the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment,” he wrote in another, referring to provisions that bestow citizenship to people born or naturalized in the United States. “Looking to the future, this may become a highly undesirable situation.” In a pair of 1998 letters to the FAIR board and to Scaife May, Tanton cited Kevin MacDonald, an academic anti-Semite popular with the contemporary “alt-right,” in explaining the nature of Jewish opposition to immigration reform. A few years earlier, he wrote that anti-racism laws in France and Switzerland “have generally been pushed by Jewish interests who are offended by those who have challenged the received version of the Holocaust.” In another letter to Scaife May, Tanton identified himself as “a devotee of the Austrian ethologist, Conrad Lorenz [sic],” a member of the Nazi Party and its Office for Race Policy.
He corresponded regularly with prominent white supremacists of the 1990s, including Jared Taylor, Peter Brimelow, and Sam Francis. In 1995, Brimelow’s book, Alien Nation, was published to much fanfare on the nativist right—Scaife May paid for his research assistant and to promote the book, at Tanton’s behest. In it, Brimelow warned that our “white nation” was under siege: “There is no precedent for a sovereign country undergoing such a rapid and radical transformation of its ethnic character in the entire history of the world.” This resonated so much with Tanton that he thrice offered Brimelow, founder of the VDARE Foundation and publisher of VDARE.com, a job as a spokesperson for English Language Advocates, one of Tanton’s advocacy groups pushing to make English the only official language of the United States. (ELA is now known as ProEnglish and is designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.) Brimelow did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Tanton offered Brimelow money to support him on his book tour and talking points for interviews as well as analysis of immigration issues. “It’s rather like developing a cough,” he wrote in one 1995 letter, drawing upon his medical training and the long history of racist fear mongering about the fragile health of the body politic. “If one checks into it early, simple inexpensive measures may suffice and one’s lung health may continue unimpaired. However, if you wait until you’re coughing up blood, have lost 20 pounds, and have swollen lymph nodes in the neck, the treatment is likely to be severe, painful, expensive, and perhaps ineffective. Palliation may be the best that can be hoped for.” Tanton continued: “With the immigration problem, we may have missed our chance to nip it in the bud and now only strong measures will suffice.”
Later, in a moment of some despair, Tanton would echo Scaife May’s fears about white people’s dropping birth rates. “All of Western Civilization is running at sub-replacement fertility, and will within a generation or two disappear into the history books,” he confided in a 1997 letter to Brimelow. “It looks as if Western Civilization, as attractive as it is in certain respects, is simply unable to meet the evolutionary test of reproductive success.”
(Even today, links between the organizations exist: Paul K. Nachman, a retired physicist and member of FAIR’s board of advisers, is a regular contributor to VDARE.com. Last year, an analysis by the SPLC and the Center for New Community found that 450 weekly emails from CIS to subscribers over the course of nearly a decade included 1,700 articles from VDARE.com—an average of three VDARE pieces per week—including 51 pieces written by Brimelow himself. CIS also shared pieces written by Richard Spencer and published by websites he ran.)
Over the years, as Tanton and Brimelow secured grants and financial backers for each other, Tanton was advising and supporting a young Jared Taylor as he launched his new magazine, American Renaissance. AmRen would become a refuge of white nationalist “intellectuals” in the decades to come, holding regular conferences for besuited racists like David Duke and Richard Spencer, who reportedly used the event to call for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” in the United States. Among the advice Tanton offered Taylor was how to deal with accusations of racism: “One of my favorite responses is to ask for a definition of the term,” he wrote in a Jan. 6, 1992 letter. “Few of the people who throw it around have thought about it enough to have one ready, and if they do, can often not find racism in such as way as does not include themselves.”
Reached via email, Taylor denied that Tanton had had any influence over the magazine. “John Tanton did not contribute in any way to the establishment of American Renaissance,” he wrote to me. “He never wrote for the magazine, never contributed a dime, never made an introduction.” Asked why he shared a rough draft of the first issue of the magazine, Taylor replied: “I was curious to know what he would think.”
One AmRen favorite was Sam Francis, a contributor to the magazine and speaker at its conferences, with whom Tanton corresponded directly, mostly exchanging book recommendations. (“I’d like to read a bit of Gramsci. Could you perchance suggest a good first book of his, or perhaps an anthology if there is one?”) Francis wrote the “Statement of Principles” for the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, articulating their opposition to all forms of race mixing, including affirmative action, and anything else that would “destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.” In the March 1995 issue of American Renaissance, Francis suggested that white people ought to consider “imposing adequate fertility controls on nonwhites.” He also edited Pat Buchanan’s book, The Death of the West, although he wanted the title to be The Death of Whitey. Toward the end of his life, Francis received direct financial support from Scaife May—her Colcom Foundation gave him more than $200,000 before his death in 2005.
One of on-again, off-again Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s favorite novels, The Camp of the Saints, by the racist French novelist Jean Raspail, exists in English almost entirely thanks to Scaife May and Tanton: After a first English translation failed to gain traction in 1975, Scaife May funded a second print run in 1983, giving $5,000 through the Laurel Foundation to the Institute for Western Values for the purposes of distributing the book. “A million poor wretches, armed only with their weakness and their numbers, overwhelmed by misery, encumbered with starving brown and black children, ready to disembark on our soil, the vanguard of the multitudes pressing hard against every part of the tired and overfed West,” Raspail writes in the novel’s preface. “I literally saw them, saw the major problem they presented, a problem absolutely insoluble by our present moral standards. To let them in would destroy us. To reject them would destroy them.”
By 1983, Scaife May had already contributed some $4 million to Tanton’s organizations and causes; $5,000 was a paltry sum in comparison. “Our concern is that huge masses of immigrants are not becoming acculturated and moving into the mainstream,” the foundation’s president told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1988. “They are not learning English, and we believe it is preventing them from assimilating.” In 1995, Tanton’s own Social Contract Press would publish a third English-language run, again with support from Scaife May, and in January 1999, Tanton would thank Donna Panazzi, a Scaife May aide, for the heir’s money and support for an emerging Camp of the Saints movie project.
“I want you to know that I consider my reputation on the line in this project, which I very much want to see succeed,” Tanton insisted. The film was never made.
It is clear from Tanton’s archives—both their content and the very fact of their existence—that he considered himself a historical actor, one engaged in activity that scholars and journalists will find significant and worth investigating. “When the time comes to write up our efforts, historians will at least have at hand our ideas of what we were trying to do—not ones that he or she made up in their own head,” he wrote at one point. Obsessed with not being misunderstood, Tanton’s meticulous note-taking reveals his self-consciousness (or at least self-conception) as an agent of history, and moreover that his theory of history is an idealistic one—that he is a soldier in “a wider war of fundamental ideas.”
And yet, for all that, and for all his ostensible commitment to free speech and inquiry, little more than half of his archives is accessible to the public. Out of the 25 boxes of papers Tanton has donated to the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, 14 are open without restriction and 11 are closed to the public until 2035. According to library records, the sealed boxes contain, among other things, meeting minutes of the board of FAIR beginning in 1979, still more of Tanton’s private correspondence, and nine folders labeled “Pioneer Fund,” a private foundation dedicated to funding race science and eugenics. FAIR received $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund before it stopped soliciting the organization’s grants in 1994.
For Tanton, population control and eugenics were two sides of the same coin. “The Fund has five or six million dollars of capital, which was given to be used on population and eugenic problems,” he wrote in a letter to Garrett Hardin, the nativist ecologist who wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons” and received funding from Pioneer Fund. In a letter to Robert K. Graham, Tanton promised to have “some serious conversations about what might be done to breath [sic] some life back into the eugenics movement.” Graham, the inventor of shatter-proof eyeglass lenses, presided over a $70 million fortune, with which he founded a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners—a barricade against “retrograde humans” and the threat of communism. (“I should try to find some project that he would like to finance,” Tanton noted in a 1995 memo.) Elsewhere, while contemplating the “effects of population growth on physical and human capital formation” in a letter to one of Scaife May’s aides, Tanton lamented “the fall from favor of eugenics.” He continued: “Somewhere in between this Scylla and Charybdis, society will be forced to decide who will live and who will die, and what the criteria of worth are.”
Last year, the University of Michigan denied a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the sealed archives from Virginia-based immigration attorney Hassan Ahmad. In court filings, attorneys for the university have argued that despite being held by a public institution, Tanton’s sealed records are under a “donor’s gift agreement and thus “exempt from disclosure.” Any disclosure before the scheduled date “would breach the donor’s gift agreement and understanding that certain papers would remain private.”
Ahmad has rejected the university’s premise and is continuing to appeal its decision. “A gift agreement doesn’t trump the law,” he wrote to me in an email. “Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act imposes a legal obligation on public institutions like the University. It exists precisely so that the public can see what public institutions are doing. I am at a loss to understand why the University is standing in the way of finding out the truth about Dr. Tanton’s role as architect of the anti-immigrant movement, responsible for policies affecting the lives of millions. Mass incarceration and deportation, banning entire religious groups, denial of due process, and fomenting hatred of aspiring Americans - all of it has been the hallmark of Tanton’s hate networks. These groups enjoy a cozy relationship with the likes of Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Steve Miller, Kellyanne Conway, Kris Kobach, and Richard Spencer. We have a right to see what’s in the Tanton Papers, and we should not, and cannot wait until 2035.”
The University of Michigan declined to comment. “We have nothing to share,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. The man himself is incapacitated. “Dr. Tanton no longer grants interviews,” a spokesperson for U.S. Inc, one of Tanton’s nonprofit funding vehicles, wrote to me in an email. “He is in an assisted living home with late stage Parkinson’s Disease.”
In one of his oral self-histories, Tanton reflected on his best qualities as a political actor. “I have an average mind, but as I look back in on myself, and try to be objective, one thing I have been is very, very persistent,” he said. “If one hangs in there over a long period of time, it’s amazing what can be achieved, especially if the opposition is not as persistent.” Indeed, Tanton has weathered scandals precipitated by reporting from the Arizona Republic, the New York Times, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. As it happens, the current issue of Tanton’s pseudo-academic journal is dedicated to disparaging SPLC’s work. “This is the second time that the editors of The Social Contract have devoted an entire issue to attacking the SPLC,” the Center’s Beirich said. “They even resorted to recycling a number of articles from the original for this latest attack. I think it’s a clear indication that the Law Center has been successful in its efforts to expose the racism that is deeply entrenched in this movement.”
Tanton’s individual persistence was at bottom made possible by the greater persistence of wealth across generations in the United States, coming to fruition in the hundreds of millions of dollars that Cordelia Scaife May left to the Colcom Foundation when she died. What endures is not any individual or personality but capital and institutions. Tanton’s best political skill was not his analysis or his rhetoric but his ability to flatter wealthy racists. He was not a great theoretician or leader or organizer, but an adroit servant of capital’s class interests, for this is how the capitalist class exerts power—not by engaging in democratic politics, but by creating a bulwark against it.
Ironically, Tanton recognized this dynamic himself, however accidentally, in his striving for an essentially American identity. “I think there is such a thing as an American culture, however difficult it may be to define,” he once mused. “For instance, the United States is the most philanthropic society on the face of the earth, and most of the work that FAIR and our opponents do is supported by philanthropy. Few, if any, other cultures have developed the idea of public philanthropy as strongly as we have here.”
What he failed to recognize is that the very idea of public philanthropy as it is practiced in the United States of America is wholly the creation of the American plutocracy—wealthy industrialists and corporate scions seeking ways to consolidate and protect their money over time. While the practice of establishing private family trusts and foundations and of spending copious amounts of money on ostensibly philanthropic (though in fact political) causes is now commonplace among the capitalist class, it was not always so. The first of these, the Rockefeller Foundation, was formed in 1913; a century later, according to political scientist Robert Reich, there were over 100,000 private foundations in the United States, controlling over $800 billion. “The tax code turned many extraordinarily wealthy families, intent upon preserving their fortunes, into major forces in America’s civic sector,” Jane Mayer writes in Dark Money. “In order to shelter themselves from taxes, they were required to invent a public philanthropic role.”
Upon their father’s death, Scaife May and her brother, Richard Mellon Scaife, were the beneficiaries of two charitable trusts of $50 million each, structured such that, after 20 years of donating all net income from the trusts to nonprofit charities, the siblings would receive their $50 million principals. Their mother did the same in 1961, setting up a pair of $25 million trusts, and again in 1963, setting up another $100 million in trusts for her grandchildren. Mellon Scaife, who once called a reporter for the Columbia Journalism Review a “fucking Communist cunt,” would go on to make some $1 billion in political and philanthropic contributions over a 50-year period, anticipating the Koch brothers’ current reign and shaping the right-wing of American politics for half a century. In a secret memoir, obtained by Mayer, Mellon Scaife gloated, “Isn’t it grand how tax law gets written?”
There is deep and horrible irony in Mellon family money, which powered American imperialism in Central and South America and which grew as a result of that imperial expansion, now being spent to denigrate and punish the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the men and women whose countries the Mellons helped to colonize, who now come to the United States seeking respite from their nations’ ruin. For people like Tanton and Scaife May or organizations like FAIR and CIS, the point is not to purge the United States of immigrants wholly but to ensure the continued immiseration and suffering of the poor and the dispossessed—the most destitute of whom, it is no accident, are mostly people of color.
The activity of the Tanton network and the support it has received from one of America’s oldest imperial families shows above all how one faction of the ruling class, at least, imagines it can create a permanent underclass from which to extract value: first, by dehumanizing migrants in the minds of the citizens; then, by allowing them to sell their labor to employers across the country; and finally, in the prisons and detention centers where they are housed until deportation, and the cycle begins anew. In turn, this contributes to the continued creation of a massive population of surplus labor, which puts downward pressure on wages for all workers.
The legal framework upon which the regime rests already existed; what is happening now is entirely compatible with what has gone before. It was only the leniency of the Obama administration that offered any respite—the noblesse oblige of “prosecutorial discretion” to not detain undocumented people at schools or hospitals. In fact, Democratic administrations contributed to the expansion of this framework and the discourse that enables it, not only as a matter of domestic policy but in trade agreements and international monetary policy, as well as by simply granting the notion that the border is something that needs to be policed and immigration something that needs to be restricted.
Capitalism in crisis invites the reaction that racism readily provides: criminalization of the structurally oppressed, subject to heavily militarized control and containment and scapegoating by the culture industries. In constantly producing and reproducing these ideas, reducing them to their most vicious and cynical distillations, we see in the Tanton network, animated as it is by Scaife May’s ghastly largesse, a crucial component in the technology that crafts the discourse of racial capitalism. It is the intellectual crucible of possessive nationalism: the resentful, racist grasping exemplified in the Trump campaign and brought into most acute reality by the administration’s immigration policies, bringing us to a historical juncture in which capitalism and racism’s complementary mechanisms of social control are revealed in all their brutality and abundance.
The border itself is the most powerful of these mechanisms—or, more specifically, it is from the idea of the border that other mechanisms of social control derive their power. (Race, after all, is itself a kind of border.) It is the border that allows capitalism to work at all; capitalism needs borders, even if capital itself does not adhere to them. This is the unspoken truth contained in the Democratic Party’s breathless reassurances—to whom, one wonders?—that they are of course not calling for “open borders,” even as they issue strident condemnation of the Trump administration’s cruelty and call for the abolition of its most draconian agencies. The borders that separate one country from another are an artifact of politics and history: They have no material reality in themselves but were born of violence; their maintenance demands violence, increasingly so as the cycles of capitalism drive both mass migration and repression. The borders that organizations like CIS, FAIR, and NumbersUSA advocate for do not stop at the borders between countries: Border Patrol’s jurisdiction extends 100 miles inland from any of the United States’ external boundaries, while ICE patrols the interior. Nowhere is safe, not even the most progressive sanctuary city; indeed, the need to police the nation’s borders stretches out past those borders into other countries: As a former Obama DHS official said in 2012, “The Guatemalan border with Chiapas [Mexico] is now our southern border.”
Undocumented people bring the border with them wherever they go—so do all migrants under racial capitalism. Any transgression of a political boundary constitutes a threat to the entire system and must be policed accordingly. It is no accident of history that the agencies tasked with enforcing the immigration regime were created, consolidated, and empowered as part of the response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As the 9/11 Commission report put it: “The American homeland is the planet.” Foundations controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife in life and funded generously by him in death have contributed millions not only to FAIR and CIS but also to sites of anti-Muslim bigotry like the Center for Security Policy, where the idea of the Muslim ban originated and whose senior vice president, Fred Fleitz, was just appointed chief of staff of the National Security Council. The global war on terror and the war on migrants are one and the same.
The world created by the Scaifes and Mellons, the banks and corporations, and by all of their proxies in politics and the media is everywhere shaped by borders, bans, and barriers. “As a practicing physician I know the importance of borders in the human body,” Tanton wrote in the third issue of The Social Contract. “When the Rev. James Jones of Guyana gave his 900 followers cyanide to drink, he was erasing their internal physiological borders and poisoning the enzymes that kept their compartmentalized bodies alive. On the other side of the medical metaphor, there are diseases of the membranes in which their bordering becomes too tight, too impervious, so that the contained cells die from the inability of nutrition to get in or of wastes to get out.” In Tanton’s medical metaphor, immigrants are best represented as poison—cyanide and waste—to which his ideas are the antidote. Trump and his supporters’ fetishization of “the wall” is simply an articulation of their commitment to this world: The wall is white supremacy; the wall is the rule of the wealthy few over the impoverished many; the wall is a quarantine. It separates the United States from Mexico, Europe from Africa, and Israel from Palestine. The wall simply is the border made real, natural, and impermeable.
But it is politics that made borders—and walls, and all the separations and segregations of this world—and politics that can unmake them. There is no immigration crisis; there is only a political crisis, wherein the white supremacist plutocracy scrambles to maintain its barbaric dominance over the world it has created however and wherever it can—thus billionaires; thus the Tanton network; thus concentration camps full of children, haunted by the ghosts of capitalists living and dead.