Dr. John Tanton, Quiet Catalyst in Anti-Immigration Drive, Dies at 85

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Dr. John Tanton, a small-town ophthalmologist who founded or fostered the nation’s leading anti-immigration groups, which have helped shape President Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, died on Tuesday in Petoskey, Mich. He was 85.

His death was announced by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, which he started four decades ago with the aim of reducing the number of immigrants to the United States. The cause was not given, but a funeral home obituary in Michigan said he had struggled with Parkinson’s disease for 16 years.

Other groups that Dr. Tanton either directly founded or provided with seed money and logistical support include the Center for Immigration Studies and the Immigration Reform Law Institute, both in Washington, and NumbersUSA, in Arlington, Va.

He also started groups dedicated to making English the official language of the United States and a publishing arm that put out the journal The Social Contract, as well as books by leading opponents of immigration.

Over the years the groups have chipped away at the nation’s pro-immigrant consensus, lobbying on Capitol Hill for greater enforcement at the southwestern border, a reduction in legal immigration and sanctions against employers who hire unauthorized immigrants. They have also nurtured tough state bills and local ordinances to check illegal immigration.

Many of Dr. Tanton’s ideas on immigration found a champion in President Trump, who has made securing the border with Mexico arguably the signature issue of his presidency.

Though Dr. Tanton had withdrawn from public view in recent years, his nonprofit U.S. Inc., based in Petoskey, on the North Shore of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, helped fund the Remembrance Project. The organization sought out grieving family members whose loved ones had been killed by unauthorized immigrants and repeatedly put them onstage with President Trump during his 2016 campaign for the White House.

Senior personnel from the Tanton-linked groups moved into key positions in the administration dealing with immigration after Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

FAIR initially aimed at the political center, appealing to unions over wage competition from newly arrived immigrants, and at environmentalists over the added sprawl and pollution that came with a quicker-growing population. But the group’s proposals took hold largely in the Republican Party.

At the same time, Dr. Tanton’s legacy was tarnished by his connections to white nationalists and by a leaked memo he wrote warning of a “Latin onslaught.”

Opponents and supporters alike have long agreed that Dr. Tanton had an outsize influence on national policy for an eye doctor living nearly 800 miles from Washington in a resort town on Lake Michigan.

“He is the most influential unknown man in America,” Linda Chavez, a former aide to President Ronald Reagan who once led a Tanton group that promoted English-only laws, told The New York Times in 2011.

FAIR’s president, Dan Stein, said in a statement on the group’s website that Dr. Tanton was “a person with extraordinary persistence in promoting ideas based on a careful analysis of how today’s decisions affect the future.”

Though Dr. Tanton became best known for advocating reduced immigration, his father was himself an immigrant from Canada.

John Hamilton Tanton was born on Feb. 23, 1934, in Detroit to John Fitzgerald Tanton (who was known as Jack) and Hannah (Koch) Tanton. He spent his early childhood in Detroit before the family moved to his mother’s family farm in Eastern Michigan in 1945. There he learned farming from his father and grandfather.

After graduating from high school in Sebewaing, Mich., on Saginaw Bay, he attended Michigan State University in East Lansing, where he met Mary Lou Brown. They married in 1958.

He is survived by his wife, as well as the couple’s two daughters, Laura de Olazarra and Jane Thompson; two grandchildren; and a sister, Liz Faupel.

Dr. Tanton graduated from medical school at the University of Michigan and went into private practice as an eye doctor in Petoskey. After working at a birth-control clinic during his internship at Denver General Hospital, he and his wife became involved in Planned Parenthood, founding the group’s first clinic in Northern Michigan.

Friends and colleagues described Dr. Tanton as a Renaissance man and a voracious autodidact. He began a “great books” discussion group and taught himself German. He was also a beekeeper.

As an environmentalist, Dr. Tanton was active in local conservation issues as well as the national Sierra Club. He was also deeply concerned about the impact of the rapidly growing human population on the planet. He joined the group Zero Population Growth and became its national president.

As birthrates declined following the baby boom, he turned his focus to an ever larger source of population growth in the United States: immigrants.

He founded FAIR in Washington in 1979 and shortly thereafter took a sabbatical from his ophthalmology practice to work for the organization in the capital.

The Center for Immigration Studies was created in 1985 as a separate think tank to produce research on immigration. FAIR’s litigation group grew into the Immigration Reform Law Institute in 1986.

Early employees of FAIR said that over time it became clear that immigration restriction resonated more on the right than on the left.

Dr. Tanton pushed to make English the official language of the United States through his group U.S. English. During a battle over an official-English ballot initiative in Arizona in 1988, The Arizona Republic published a racially provocative memo that Dr. Tanton had written in which he asked whether “Latin American migrants bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe).”

In the memo he also asked: “As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?”

During his tenure, FAIR accepted money from the Pioneer Fund, a group that has funded research into eugenics, race and intelligence.

The Southern Poverty Law Center referred to Dr. Tanton as “the puppeteer” of the nativist movement and declared both FAIR and the Center for Immigration Studies, known as CIS, to be hate groups. (CIS filed a lawsuit over the designation.)

In his statement, Mr. Stein, of FAIR, described attacks against Dr. Tanton as “nasty sleight of hand” in instances “where he was floating an idea out as an intellectual exercise.”

Dr. Tanton’s ideas prefigured many of the debates about white identity politics that have taken hold on the right wing. “Demography is destiny,” he wrote. “We decline to bequeath to our children minority status in their own land.”

In a letter to The Times in response to a Page 1 article about him and his organizations in 2011, Dr. Tanton wrote, “Regarding my penchant for working with all sides of the political, ethnic, philosophic, economic, racial, religious and other spectra, that is how one forms a coalition that has political meaning and power.”

Interviewed as part of a FAIR oral history project in 1989, he looked into the future with concern.

“I am worried that we may be heading into a time when there is going to be heightened group conflict,” he said. “I think the next couple of decades will be very testy ones in mankind’s history.”


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