One Man’s Quest to Crack the Modern Anti-Immigration Movement—by Unsealing Its Architect’s PapersBreaking News
tags: racism, immigration, archives, eugenics, Nativism, University of Michigan, primary sources, John Tanton
In the days following the 2016 presidential election, then–Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and President-elect Donald Trump posed for photographs at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in New Jersey. Kobach, an anti-immigration hardliner whose name was being floated to lead the Department of Homeland Security, held a binder and a stack of papers on his left hand. Zoomed-in images revealed the title—“Kobach Strategic Plan For First 365 Days”—and bullet-pointed agenda items that included reinstating a Bush-era registry for immigrants based on religion, ethnicity, and nationality and cutting off the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States.
Hassan Ahmad, an immigration lawyer running a small law firm in Virginia, was familiar with Kobach’s longtime efforts to curb immigration. Kobach had championed the infamous “show me your papers” law in Arizona that encouraged racial profiling by instructing law enforcement to request proof of citizenship or legal status from people suspected of being undocumented during routine traffic stops or other police interactions. He was also the mastermind behind 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s dubious “self-deportation” platform, which was premised on the idea that making work and living conditions in the United States worse for unauthorized immigrants would lead them to leave the country voluntarily. For Ahmad, a Pakistani-American, the photo of Trump and Kobach presaged the “kinds of people,” as he put it, who would be calling the shots on immigration at the White House.
“I figured if we’re going to be spending all of our time putting out fires for the next four years, maybe we should look and see where all this is coming from,” Ahmad says. “Who is going to be telling the new administration where the buttons and levers are to turn the immigration machine into a deportation machine?”
Soon after he saw the Trump and Kobach photo, Ahmad set out to discover who was, in his words, “the flamethrower.” That same month, he learned from a New York Times article that John Tanton, the nativist founder of prominent anti-immigration organizations, had donated a trove of documents to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, in the 1980s. With the help of an associate, Ahmad glanced through the papers’ titles listed on the website of the school’s Bentley Historical Library. Among the “really scary stuff” they saw was a reference to a box containing nine folders with 14 years’ worth of material related to the Pioneer Fund, a foundation established in 1937 to promote eugenics and “race science.”
The more he read, the more concerned Ahmad became. The organizations Tanton founded include the lobbying group Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the think-tank Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)—both of which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as hate groups—as well as their grassroots counterpart NumbersUSA. These groups had close ties to central figures in Trump’s inner circle for immigration policy. “At the time, I didn’t appreciate the centrality of his role in building the anti-immigrant movement,” Ahmad says, “and the outsize influence that he continues to enjoy over immigration discourse to this day.”
The John Tanton Papers are stored in 25 cardboard boxes containing correspondence, memos, legal filings, news clips, and photographs—documents dating from 1960 to 2007 that illuminate Tanton’s relentless fundraising efforts and reveal that he “was obsessed with white nationalism,” Ahmad says. But only part of the archive is currently available to the public. Tanton died in 2019, but under a gift agreement he reached with the University of Michigan, boxes 15 through 25 are required to remain sealed until April 6, 2035. Besides records related to the Pioneer Fund—which donated more than $1 million to FAIR between the mid-1980s and early 1990s—and other private correspondence, the remaining boxes are said to contain several folders on immigration issues, including the minutes from meetings of FAIR and its legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), where Kobach has served as senior counsel.
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