A writer for the New Yorker magazine once described Madison Grant, the early 20th-century conservationist best known for his race-based opposition to immigration, as someone who had “extended a passion for preserving bison and caribou into a mania for preserving the ‘Nordic race.’ ” The same might be said of John Tanton, a physician turned political activist who died last week at age 85.
Tanton was one of the nation’s leading anti-immigration figures over the past four decades, but he wasn’t a right-wing conservative. He was a left-wing tree-hugger obsessed with overpopulation. Opposition to immigration, legal or illegal, was simply a means to that end.
Tanton came to his beliefs about population control in the 1960s and through the writings of antinatal zealots like Garrett Hardin and Paul Ehrlich, who argued that additional human beings have a negative effect on the supply of land, food and other resources. Modern-day Malthusians insist that the larger the population, the bigger the threat to nature. Never mind that the U.S. population has more than doubled since 1950, yet obesity is now a bigger problem than hunger and our air and water have gotten cleaner. Never mind that a billion people could easily be housed in California alone, not even the nation’s largest state by area, and it would still be less crowded than the Bronx.
Tanton had deep roots on the environmentalist left. He was a longtime member of the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and other groups that want fewer people on the planet. It doesn’t receive a lot of attention, but population control has been a major part of the radical green agenda in America for decades. The movement dates to the 19th century and gained popularity under the banner of eugenics, or selective breeding. By the early 20th century, there were well-regarded eugenics organizations in the U.S. with names like the American Breeders Association and the Race Betterment Foundation.
Eugenics proponents at the time included the science-fiction writer H.G. Wells, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger and, of course, Adolf Hitler. In the aftermath of World War II, the Hitler branch of eugenics was discredited, but the Sanger branch lives on among today’s environmentalists. The Sierra Club co-published Mr. Ehrlich’s 1968 best-seller, “The Population Bomb.” The Audubon Society supports family-planning assistance programs “in order to reduce fertility in developing nations and in the U.S.” According to the Environmental Defense Fund, resolving “the world’s major environmental challenges will require stabilizing the world’s population, at the lowest possible level.”
For Tanton, population stabilization began at home. The Michigan native and his wife organized one of the state’s first Planned Parenthood associations in 1965. By the mid-1970s, he was the head of an outfit called Zero Population Growth. Convinced that immigrants were primarily to blame for overpopulation—and frustrated that his fellow conservationists weren’t taking the immigrant threat seriously enough—he struck out on his own.
In 1979 Tanton founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform. In 1983 he formed the American Immigration Control Foundation. Later came NumbersUSA, the Center for Immigration Studies, Californians for Population Stabilization, ProjectUSA and others. Tanton’s initial focus was reducing the size of the U.S. population, but he readily joined forces with others who had entirely different reasons for wanting to close the border. FAIR has received more than $1 million in funding from the Pioneer Fund, which advocates for racial purity through eugenics. Tanton hosted immigration conferences that included white supremacists. He started the Social Contract Press, which published anti-immigrant tracts by white nationalists and Holocaust deniers. He didn’t care why you opposed immigration, so long as you did.
Over the decades, Tanton’s network grew in size but not necessarily in influence. Every so often, the press-shy Tanton would be profiled in the media, which usually played up his connections with Republicans and bigots and played down his connections with environmentalists and the “people are pollution” crowd. Some of these Republicans had no idea whom they had gotten in bed with. Others didn’t care. It’s true that Tanton made inroads with a subset of conservative restrictionists, but for most of the past 40 years Republican thinking on immigration has been informed by Ronald Reagan, not Pat Buchanan.
Reagan was a pro-immigrant optimist who had little use for Tanton’s doomsaying nativism, and both Bush presidents hewed to the Gipper’s thinking on such matters. Even recent GOP presidential nominees who lost the general election, such as John McCain and Mitt Romney, didn’t come close to being as restrictionist as someone like Tanton would have preferred. Still, in 2016 Donald Trump made opposition to illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign and won. As president he’s expressed support for legislation that would cut legal immigration by 50%, and his support among Republicans has remained sky-high. There’s reason to believe that John Tanton died a happy man.
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