University of Michigan blocks records of anti-immigrant leader

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Immigrants and their supporters walk down Woodward Avenue in Pontiac on May 1, 2017, in front of Pontiac City Hall and Oakland County Sheriff’s Dept. in a rally for immigrant rights and justice.
Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press

The University of Michigan is blocking the release of the donated records of a controversial doctor seen by civil rights groups as the founder of the modern anti-immigrant movement. 

Immigration attorney Hassan Ahmad filed a lawsuit to obtain the sealed records at the university of Dr. John Tanton, 83, of Petoskey, who founded several groups that want to sharply decrease immigration to the U.S. 

Tanton is considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be thearchitect of the modern anti-immigrant movement, a racist who created several groups that have greatly shaped the immigration debate. His ideas have a huge influence in the Trump administration, with leaders of groups he founded now determining or shaping immigration policy.

Tanton founded the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies and Numbers USA, among other groups that say current immigration levels are hurting the country. 

“His thought may be poisoning our policies,” Ahmad said.

With immigration a hot issue, Ahmad said it’s important for the public to know in more detail what Tanton and the groups he created have said over the decades. At stake are the lives of immigrants and the future demographics of the U.S.

Tanton has said the claims that he promotes racism are a “pack of lies.”

Tanton donated several boxes of his records — including correspondence and documents expressing his views — to the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library starting in 1984, with additions made over the years. Out of the 25 boxes he has donated, 14 are open without restriction, but 11 boxes are closed to the public until 2035.  

Ahmad filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request in December for the sealed records in the 11 boxes, saying they should be public since Tanton’s views are increasingly influential as the Trump administration cracks down on immigration. Ahmad notes that some officials in the U.S. government have worked for or have ties to groups Tanton founded, such as the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

“The organizations founded by Dr. John Tanton are currently informing U.S. immigration policy,” said Ahmad, who is based in Virginia. “I think the public interest is served by investigating the connection between his thought and the current immigration policies. The rise of white nationalism, as we’ve seen in Charlottesville, seem to make this all the more important. … It’s important for us to be aware of how his thought may be poisoning our policies.”

In May, the university denied Ahmad’s FOIA request, and in June, Ahmad filed a lawsuit in the Michigan Court of Claims.

In August, attorneys for the university filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, saying that Tanton’s sealed records are under a “donor’s gift agreement and thus “exempt from disclosure.”

Ahmad filed a response this month, saying that Tanton’s paper are public records and deal with government affairs.

A spokesman for the University of Michigan, Rick Fitzgerald, declined comment  because of the pending litigation. Tanton could not be reached for comment. According to a New York Times report on Tanton in 2011, he has Parkinson’s disease and hasn’t been commenting publicly in recent years. 

Tanton has denied previously he is racist, condemning on his website “unsavory characters whose views can easily be characterized as anti-American, anti-Semitic and outright racist.”

Tanton said in 2009 that the Southern Poverty Law Center and others who criticize him are “special interest groups, driven by the need to scare donors into shelling out more money, resorting to repeated, vicious smears and ad hominem attacks. They seek to stifle legitimate debate over a pressing public policy issue: mass immigration.”

For decades, Tanton, a retired ophthalmologist, has been an outspoken opponent of U.S. immigration policies. He started out as an environmentalist and was active with Planned Parenthood and population reduction groups before his focus switched more to immigration of nonwhites.

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He was the founding chairman of FAIR and helped start or influence other groups who want sharp decreases in immigration. Critics say he has a history of expressing racist views, saying the influx of inferior races are hurting the U.S.

Tanton has warned of Hispanic immigration harming the U.S., calling it the “Latin onslaught” and has written about eugenics and sterilization, the center said. 

“I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that,” Tanton wrote in a 1993 letter to the late Garrett Hardin, an ecology professor. 

A publishing company he founded in Michigan, The Social Contract Press, republished the English translation of  ‘The Camp of the Saints,” a French novel popular with white supremacists.

Today, the views of Tanton and the group he founded, FAIR, are held by some officials in the Trump administration, said Ahmad. 

  • In May, Julie Kirchner, the executive director of FAIR from 2007 to 2015, was named the Ombudsman of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Kris Kobach, a leading anti-immigrant figure who is Kansas Secretary of State and vice chair of Trump’s Commission on Election Integrity, was legal counsel for FAIR’s legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI)
  • The polling firm of Kellyane Conway, Counselor to Trump who often speaks on his behalf, used to do polling work for FAIR and other groups Tanton helped found, the Center for Immigration Studies and Numbers USA, reported The Atlantic.  Ahmad said that Tanton is the “lynchpin behind all three of these organizations.”

Spokesmen for the White House and Kobach did not return messages seeking comment. David Lapan, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, declined comment because of the pending litigation.

David Ray, a spokesman for FAIR, did not comment on the lawsuit, but said the claim of Tanton and FAIR having racist views is “ridiculous.”

He criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center for its reports on Tanton and FAIR, saying they are “using smears and labels to silence important public policy discussion with which they happen to disagree.”

Ahmad, citing the Bentley Historical Library, said the sealed Tanton papers include:

  • Meeting minutes of FAIR from its inception in 1979.
  • Nine folders labeled “Pioneer Fund,” a group founded to promote ideas of white superiority that funds studies of race, intelligence and genetics.
  • Dr. Tanton’s private correspondence. 
  • Folders on the issue of immigration in various states.
  • Information on groups that Tanton founded, such as Immigration Reform Law Institute and the Center for Immigration Studies.

In their response to the lawsuit seeking to dismiss the case, attorneys for the University of Michigan said his records should be private for now.

“Mr. Tanton has taken proper legal steps by a) not previously publishing the content of his private papers; and b) entering into a contract with the university under which the university agreed not to disclose the papers for a certain period of time,” university attorneys wrote. “Disclosure is unwarranted because it would breach the donor’s gift agreement and understanding that certain papers would remain private.”

Ahmad responded this month to the university’s motion, saying in a court filing that Tanton’s documents “meet the statutory definition of ‘public records’ and should be released under FOIA since they deal with the “affairs of government.”

Contact Niraj Warikoo: nwarikoo@freepress.com or 313-223-4792. Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo

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