The Roots of United States Immigration Policy

Anti-immigration policy hardliners evolved cheek by jowl with pro-eugenics and conservation groups.

Published March 29, 2017

 (Brooke Binkowski)
Image Via Brooke Binkowski

Travel bans, deportations, and midnight raids are often in the headlines in 2017, but they are in fact nothing new in the United States, which has a long history of immigration quotas and restrictions. Immigration regulations have fluctuated over the years, with the history of U.S. immigration loosely following the country's political moods:

By the early 1900s, the nation’s predominant immigration flow shifted away from northern and western European nations and toward southern and eastern Europe. In response, laws were passed in 1921 and 1924 to try to restore earlier immigration patterns by capping total annual immigration and imposing numerical quotas based on immigrant nationality that favored northern and western European countries.

Long-standing immigration restrictions began to crumble in 1943, when a law allowed a limited number of Chinese to immigrate. In 1952, legislation allowed a limited number of visas for other Asians, and race was formally removed as grounds for exclusion. Although a presidential commission recommended scrapping the national-origins quota system, Congress did not go along.

The current discussion around entry into the United States originates in an unlikely time and place: 1960s Michigan, where an ophthalmologist concerned about overpopulation quietly started up several organizations with the end goal of reducing or ending explosive population growth and imposing hard immigration limits.

The Past

John Tanton is not a well-known figure, and until 2017 his Federation for American Immigration Reform (better known as FAIR) existed mainly on the fringes of the public sphere. Tanton also started other, less high-profile groups with similar goals, such as the Center for Immigration Studies, The Social Contract Press, and U.S. English (which, as its name implies, sought to make English the official language of the United States).

Although these groups tend to be characterized in popular media as right-wing, early on Tanton appealed to groups that are now considered to espouse left-wing causes, such as the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood. (For example, he has consistently argued that population controls, including ready access to birth control and abortion, are better for the environment and for the nation overall.)

Tanton was first inspired by the 1968 book The Population Bomb by professor Paul Ehrlich (and his wife Anne, uncredited in early copies), which predicted a darkly Malthusian future characterized by food shortages, wars, and misery due to overpopulation. In the book, the Ehrlichs advocated population control policies, both voluntary and coerced.

That the Ehrlichs' book overlooked the capacity of human ingenuity in overcoming some of the population-related issues they warned about, Tanton was not fazed, writing in 1970 that:

It can be seen that about 50 percent of the national growth can be attributed to unwanted pregnancies. Programs falling into this category would include law reform, passage of the Tydings' legislation, sex and family life education in the schools, etc. The question of wanted pregnancies in married women is a matter of coercion or persuasion, and such things as educational campaigns, tax law revisions, etc. would fit into this category. The whole question of immigration and their possible restriction poses interesting dilemmas. We can either continue the same rate and have that far fewer babies are born annually to present Americans, or stop the immigration and have that many more babies ourselves or some combination of the two — but not both!

By 1975, Tanton's interests had broadened (although he still maintained an interest in environmentalism). He wrote — as did many other people at the time — that population restrictions could only help the environment. But from there he quickly leapt to theorizing about how controlling who should be allowed to breed, and when, would contribute to the betterment of humanity. That year he published a brief memo titled "The Case for Passive Eugenics", contrasting it with "active eugenics" as follows:

Passive eugenics involves deciding not so much what traits are desired, but the easier question of what traits are not desired. This would include such things as those already mentioned: congenital genetic defects, other physical congenital deformities, and a physical and social situation in which the child cannot reach its full potential.

The question of whether or not persons carrying seriously adverse genes should be allowed to reproduce on one hand, or should be encouraged not to on the other is a difficult one which falls between the concepts of active and passive eugenics. An example would be an individual born with the dominant gene for retinal blastoma, a childhood cancer of the eyes. This condition can now be successfully treated, sometimes retaining the vision of the individual, so that they can live into the reproductive years. There are many such genetic conditions which were formerly selected out of the population before reproduction and whose incidence as a result was determined largely by the mutation rate. Now these individuals are living to reproduce, and the incidence of their diseases can be expected to increase at a predictable rate.

As the years progressed, Tanton became convinced that reproduction within countries with higher birthrates had to be curbed, either by population control within their borders, immigration control (so that their excess population could not enter the United States), or both.  He also became ever more entrenched in an anti-immigrant and white supremacist ideology, writing in 1993 that "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."

It was also around this time that Tanton became connected to the development and promotion of Quinacrine, a drug that was originally developed as an antimalarial in the 1930s, but was then repurposed as a sterilization agent three decades later — and used as a method of forced or coerced contraception in developing countries, on Native American reservations and possibly in prisons in the United States for decades, with the administration of sterilization in all cases disproportionally targeting non-white women.

Dr. Stephen Mumford, who was involved in the Quinacrine effort, told the BBC in a 1995 interview that:

BETSY HARTMANN: A student of mine was examining who was funding the anti-immigration movement in the United States and searching through the tax records of various foundations, when she chanced upon the tax records of the Leland Fikes Foundation and found to her amazement that that Foundation was not only funding the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which is very anti-immigrant, but Mumford’s work on Quinacrine. It’s very scary that you have a private foundation funding both an anti-immigration group and a form of unethical contraception. I think there’s a racial fear involved in this politics.

STEPHEN MUMFORD: My God this is [what] they call this an anti-immigrant organisation. I think that the Federation of American Immigration Reform is a highly patriotic institution, that is correct. I mean very few Americans agree that we should have open borders and FAIR’s position is that we should not have open borders and that has been the focus of their efforts since they were created. I’m very happy to identify with the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

ELTON KESSEL: You know, if you open the borders of the United States, the United States will become a developing country.

STEPHEN MUMFORD: That’s correct. Most Americans do not want to live in these conditions, including myself.

The New York Times reported in a 2011 profile on Tanton that he founded FAIR out of concerns about the number of immigrants, as well as about what he saw as corrupt cultures:

But Dr. Tanton feared that they were failing to assimilate. He formed a new group, U.S. English, to oppose bilingual education and demand that government agencies use English alone. By 1988, Dr. Tanton had a high-profile director in Ms. Chavez and ballot measures pending in three states.

Then The Arizona Republic revealed the contents of a memorandum he had sent to friends before a brainstorming session. “Will Latin-American migrants bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe)?” he 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?”

Latino fertility rates caused him special alarm: “Those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!”

News emerged that FAIR had received more than a million dollars in funding throughout the 1980s and 1990s from the pro-eugenics Pioneer Fund, and FAIR publicly distanced themselves from the group not long after that. Tanton was quietly moved to an advisory capacity in FAIR, ostensibly due to debilitating Parkinson's disease. (An e-mailed request to Tanton for comment on this article was declined because of his failing health.)

The Present

Tanton's philosophies, obviously, did not dissipate with his retirement from the public eye. His prodigious networking efforts brought together a group of people from across the political and ideological spectrum, all focused on population and immigration and eventually coagulating into two main groups, the aforementioned FAIR and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). The latter provides white papers (which are criticized for relying on dubious statistics and fuzzy math) to journalists and lawmakers, who often cite them without skepticism. FAIR and the Center for Immigration Studies have not only been directly involved with shaping President Donald Trump's policies in particular, they seemingly have an unprecedented influence under his administration.

For example, a recent and extensive report from investigative journalism outfit ProPublica found that FAIR's former executive director, Julie Kirchner, was tapped to work for the Department of Homeland Security in an advisory capability, as was the Center for Immigration Studies' John Feere. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was engaged to join Trump's immigration policy transition team, has worked as a lawyer for FAIR (and the organization endorsed him for Trump's transition team without disclosing that fact in their statement). Kobach also co-authored Arizona's highly controversial SB 1070, formally titled the "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act," which instituted a series of laws aimed at reducing the number of undocumented people in the state.

Although U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions never worked directly for either organization, he did receive funding and awards from FAIR and other population and immigration control groups, some of which he did not disclose during his confirmation hearings, as the Los Angeles Times reported in January 2017:

Today, most environmentalists and anti-immigration activists line up on opposite political teams, but in the 1970s, controlling population was a key tenet of the environmental movement. When birthrates in the U.S. began falling, the groups focused on immigration. Eventually, mainstream environmentalists dropped their advocacy for limiting population growth.

But groups including NumbersUSA, the Foundation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies, still push for lower immigration levels, and Sessions has worked closely with them to stop legislation advancing a path to citizenship.

The biggest source of funding for these groups has been the Colcom Foundation of Pittsburgh, created by the late Cordelia Scaife May, an heiress to the Mellon family fortune who believed in restricting immigration to protect the environment.

Cordelia Scaife May, whom Tanton called "Cordy," also promoted population control and anti-immigration efforts. She funded everything from FAIR to the re-publication of a French novel about the perils of unchecked immigration titled The Camp of the Saints — a book to which Trump advisor Steve Bannon repeatedly refers.

The Future

The Trump administration has already received backlash for the so-called Muslim ban, which first applied to travelers trying to enter the United States from Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya and caused mass chaos at airports around the globe as officials struggled to implement it. (In a second version of the executive order, Iraq was dropped from the list under pressure from lobbyists, but both orders have been halted by federal judges.)

However, it is unclear whether immigration controls will have much effect on the demographics of the United States in the long run. A 2015 Pew Research report found that by 2065 the U.S. will have no clear cultural or ethnic majority, largely because of immigrants already in the country and their descendants.  

Explosive population growth, already proved not to be the bugbear that Dr. Paul Ehrlich predicted in the 1960s, has begin to stabilize and may actually be on the decline. According to some researchers, the solution to the societal ills that plague philosophers and researchers (among others) may well lie in curbing overconsumption —  not overpopulation or immigration.


Center for a New Community/    "Nativists in the White House."   22 December 2016.

Ehrlich, Paul and Ehrlich, Anne.  The Population Bomb.    Massachusetts: Rivercity Press, 1968, 1975.   ISBN: 978-0345021397

Goldstein, Jared.  "Unfit for the Constitution: Nativism and the Constitution, from the Founding Fathers to Donald Trump."     Roger Williams University School of Law.    24 February 2017.

Immigration History Research Center, University of Michigan.    "Eugenics, Race, & Immigration."    17 June 2015.   

Southern Poverty Law Center.    "Anti-Immigrant."        

Southern Poverty Law Center.    "Trump's ICE Bulletin Aims To Shame 'Sanctuary Cities,' But Its Numbers Are Skewed."    23 March 2017.

University of Michigan.   "The Tanton Papers."    

Normandin, Sebastian and Valles, Sean.    "How a Network of Conservationists and Population Control Activists Created the Contemporary U.S. Anti-Immigration Movement."    Endeavour, Vol. 39 No. 2.    28 May 2015.

Brooke Binkowski is a former editor for Snopes.