The Slatest

Times Taps White Nationalist Organization for Thought-Provoking Perspective on Immigration

Tanton, who is wearing a suit and glasses, is seen in close-up.
The late John Tanton. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by FredElbel743/Wikipedia

The New York Times opinion section under editor James Bennet ostensibly aims to challenge the paper’s predominately liberal readers by presenting them with thoughtful critiques of their worldview. In practice, it runs pieces like this recent argument that launching a war against Iran would end attacks against American interests in the Middle East—which was written by a veteran of the Bush administration who had predicted confidently in a 2003 piece also published by the Times that launching a war against Iraq would end attacks against American interests in the Middle East. There was no acknowledgment in the new piece of the old one, as an opinion section committed to intellectual honesty might require, nor was it particularly challenging in the sense of being difficult to rebut. But it did make people on the left feel bad, and like they were losing their minds, which is the bar that Bennet’s section requires an argument to clear.

The essay “I’m a Liberal Who Thinks Immigration Must Be Restricted,” published in the Times Thursday, may represent the nadir of this approach. It makes a familiar argument: that “the left” believes in a “post-national” system of open borders which sacrifices the interests of native-born working Americans to the interests of low-skilled foreign immigrants who drive down wages and disrupt the cultural cohesiveness of their communities. It argues for respecting a distinction between legal and illegal immigration and asserts that Donald Trump’s position on immigration can be appreciated, in a non-racist way, as “a patriotic battle to defend common people.” It accuses Trump’s critics of having had their minds addled by “tribal passions” and a fetish for conflict “between ethnic groups,” and it proposes a “conciliatory” policy that would offer amnesty to existing undocumented workers but institute a crackdown regime of visa enforcement that would prevent future undocumented individuals from finding jobs.

The familiarity of the article’s arguments is matched by the familiarity of its flaws. While large-scale immigration is, in fact, believed by some non-racists to flatten wages at the bottom of the pay scale, it’s also known to accelerate rather than retard economic expansion overall, and tends to be supported by progressives who advocate for other means of increasing working-class wages and sharing the benefits of GDP growth. The distinction between “legal” and “illegal” immigration is not some ancient, race-agnostic pillar of global affairs, but rather a concept that was instituted in the United States in the early 20th century to explicitly discriminate against Asian, southern European, and eastern European individuals and expanded in the 1960s to explicitly discriminate against Mexicans. Trump’s support is strongest in areas where there are fewer undocumented immigrants, not more, and he lost four of the five states that have the highest undocumented populations per capita. Many of the most immigration-heavy and ethnically diverse cities in the U.S. are also the safest and wealthiest and are considered so desirable to live in by migrating native-born Americans that they are experiencing housing crises.

As to whether criticizing an administration that instituted the premeditated, systematic separation of young children from their parents after they applied legally for asylum is a matter of unseemly “tribal passions,” or whether support for the principles of inclusive American citizenship described on the Statue of Liberty constitutes “post-national” anti-patriotism, perhaps we can agree to disagree.

More concerning than any of these specific problems, though, is the piece’s provenance: It’s written by someone named Jerry Kammer, a fellow at a think tank called the Center for Immigration Studies. Kammer has made a career out of covering immigration policy, he writes, for two reasons: “I was fascinated by its human, political and moral complexity. I also wanted to push back against the campaign by activist groups to label restrictionism as inherently racist.” He expresses regret that “odious people” with white-power affiliations have given the cause of cutting back on immigration a “bad name.”

What neither Kammer nor the Times discloses is that the Center for Immigration Studies was in fact founded by these people, most prominent among them a white nationalist named John Tanton who died last year. Tanton, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, believed that the United States needed to maintain a “European-American majority, and a clear one at that”; he founded CIS, he wrote in the 1980s, in order to give his ideas the appearance of independent “credibility.”

Kammer does write that he disagrees with “some of the center’s hard-line positions.” Among his more hard-line colleagues at CIS are a writer named Jason Richwine, who contributed to a journal founded by white supremacist Richard Spencer and who has said that “IQ” is the “most important” difference between racial groups. (As the SPLC has documented, CIS has circulated literally hundreds of articles by explicit white supremacists like Spencer via links in its weekly newsletter. Its director once accused Barack Obama of trying to “foment race war.”) A statement of purpose on the CIS website is credited to longtime Tanton collaborator Dan Stein, who once complained that mass immigration was a tool developed by “Ted Kennedy and his political allies” in approximately 1958 to “retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance.”

In 1997, the Wall Street Journal wrote about Tanton in a piece called “The Intellectual Roots of Nativism.” It was a scathing article which noted that Tanton had once described the immigrant’s contribution to society as “defecating and creating garbage and looking for jobs.” The piece expressed concern that “otherwise sober-minded conservatives” and “reasonable critics of immigration” were affiliating themselves with his ideas. The author of that WSJ article, a 28-year-old journalist named Tucker Carlson, has since made the career-advancing decision to embrace Tanton-style nativism; he was in the news not too long ago for complaining in his role as a Fox News host that immigrants make the United States physically “dirtier.”

Whatever space ever existed between mainstream conservatism and white-power nationalism, Carlson demonstrates, has collapsed. And it turns out that the “odious people” that Kammer references in the Times are actually his colleagues and forebears, who created his organization so that policies intended to perpetuate “European-American” and “Anglo-Saxon” superiority could be laundered into the respectable discourse. What else is there to say but: It worked!