Fascinating coincidence. On the very day that Trump stood in North Carolina basking in the glow of a mob screaming “Send her back!” about Rep. Ilhan Omar, John Tanton died. You probably don’t know who that is. You should. Tanton has been the primary force behind anti-immigration efforts in the United States for four decades.
He was an eye doctor from Northern Michigan who founded several nativist, anti-immigrant organizations, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI). He was a racist to the core, but the roots of his anti-immigration stance came from his hardcore environmentalism. He was part of the Zero Population Growth movement and advocated “passive eugenics” to reduce the world’s population. But his groups put a more legitimate, scholarly face on what is really good old-fashioned racism, nativism, xenophobia and a belief that those of white European descent must remain the majority in this country in order for our “society and culture to persist.” This is, of course, a major white supremacist belief.
His name was not well known except among us political junkies, but no one has done more to change America’s immigration policies for the worse than Tanton. If Stephen Miller is Trump’s big influencer on these issues, he is simply walking the path that Tanton cut. He was the man behind the curtain that blocks immigrants from coming to this country the way they once did after the 1965 Immigration Act, which got rid of the national quotas that privileged European immigration over all others. That’s rather ironic, since those Europeans who came here in waves — Germans, Italians, Irish, Poles, Eastern Europeans of all kinds — were treated the same way immigrants are treated today, with the same arguments about how they’ll destroy our culture, they bring disease, they don’t assimilate, and on and on. But the phrase “European-American” did a lot to cover up that history of bigotry in our culture the same way the phrase “Judeo-Christian” serves that purpose for the Christian church’s long history of brutal anti-Semitism.Cathy Goodman, a historian of immigration, summed up just how successful his work has been and where we might go from here:
Today Tanton’s ideas operate through our immigration policy and in how much of the public thinks about the issue. The concept of immigrant “removal” sounds legal, official and far-removed from the violence and rabidity of Trump’s campaign rallies, with angry cries of “send her back!” aimed at a sitting congresswoman. But they share the belief that the United States is, at its core, a white country.
One person can make an enormous difference. Tanton’s life’s work made severe immigration restriction thinkable, then mainstream. His organizations persist, and alumni from Tanton’s groups now staff the Trump administration, advancing their radical vision in the halls of power. Tanton’s legacy will be with us for some time. But perhaps a new vision — one that recognizes the humanity of everyone and treats immigrants with dignity and respect — can displace it now that he is gone.
I wish I could be more hopeful that this will turn out to be true, but there is good reason to doubt it. Trump has tapped into a deep vein of nativism and bigotry that lay just beneath the surface, as the Know Nothings and John Birchers did before him. In the past, we have always been able to put the genie back in the bottle, but in the age of social media and the ability to tune out all contrary media and listen only to your own perspective, I fear it may be much more difficult, perhaps impossible, to do this time. I sure hope I’m wrong. What we are seeing now is nothing less than a human rights disaster, fostered by the country who was founded, ostensibly at least, on the idea that all people are created equal. And no one is more to blame for that than Tanton.
If there is a hell, let Tanton live all eternity surrounded by brown and black people speaking languages other than English, with nothing but Telemundo on the TV sets and flamenco, mariachi and salsa music on every radio station.