Petoskey — Some say John Tanton is a visionary. Others call him an ogre. But the most common response to his name might be a blank stare.
The last is surprising given he single-handedly started a social movement — and not just any crusade but one of the biggest in history, one that is roiling American politics today, historians say. He is the father of the modern anti-immigration movement.
And the small-town doctor did it all from this rural outpost in northern Michigan.
“He lived an extraordinary life at every level,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington immigration-reduction group. “To do something great, one needs to have passion, purpose, energy. John has all those things.”
With President Donald Trump pushing to reduce immigration, these should be heady days for Tanton, the culmination of his life’s work. Trump has vowed to build a wall along the Mexican border and ordered restrictions on entry from several Mideast countries.
Starting in 1979, Tanton helped launch a dozen groups, including three that form the bulk of the anti-immigration movement today: FAIR, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies.
But he’s rarely mentioned by the media and, when he is, it’s often as a cartoonish bigot. That stems from some of his writings and associations in the 1980s and ’90s that critics label racist.
The real Tanton is far more complex than his public image, according to interviews, books, public archives and his voluminous writings.
Prophet or heretic, he is a spate of contradictions: a farm boy who became a self-styled intellectual, a Renaissance man who holds some provincial views, a liberal activist who founded a conservative social movement.
Tanton, 83, who moved into a nursing home last year, has trouble following the latest developments with immigration, said his family. He has advanced Parkinson’s disease, which hampers his ability to process information.
But Mary Lou Tanton surmised her husband of 58 years would feel ambivalent about immigration coming to the fore.
“We would like to see less venom. I’m a little disappointed at the ill will,” she said.
As for their longtime hometown, with its clapboard Victorians in bright hues, Petoskey looks like a throwback to a more innocent time. Its two-block downtown is jammed with quaint cafes, bookstores, gift shops and art galleries.
The old-time reverie is interrupted only by a bracing wind off Little Traverse Bay. The snow-covered resort seems far from the maddening mud fight over immigration.
The architecture isn’t the only thing that hasn’t changed since the Tantons arrived in 1964. The community’s 5,670 residents remain overwhelmingly white, 92 percent, according to the census.
The town’s size was one reason the Tantons moved to Petoskey when John became a doctor, said Mary Lou. A big city would have swallowed them up. Here they could make a difference.
John, whose father was Canadian, was born in Detroit and, at 11, moved with his family to a farm in Sebewaing in the Thumb. He studied chemistry at Michigan State and received his medical degree from the University of Michigan.
Ophthalmology was just one part of what would become Tanton’s multifaceted life in this woodsy enclave. He saw patients from Tuesday to Friday, using evenings, weekends and Mondays to chase his other pursuits. Workday or not, he was usually up by 4 a.m.
Driven by an insatiable curiosity, he was a voracious reader who developed a stunning breadth of interests and depth of knowledge, said friends.
He learned German by subscribing to German newspapers. He convened weekly and monthly salons, discussing everything from books to public issues. He audited college classes to learn about macroeconomics, aquatic plants and genetic engineering.
Vacations turned into busman’s holidays, walks in the woods into botany lessons, said friends. Tapes in his car may play music or they may be lectures on history, politics or philosophy.
Other interests: beekeeping, rock climbing, teaching himself the piano.
Tanton surprises some associates by knowing more about their fields of expertise than they do.
“He’s a real Renaissance man,” said Don Collins, a retired banker who has known Tanton since 1980. “When he sees something, he wants to learn about it: history, culture, religion, politics.”
Tanton’s concern about immigration sprang from his environmentalism. Living on the farm, he worried about society’s impact on the flora and fauna.
Shortly after arriving in Petoskey, he started local chapters of the Audubon Society and Sierra Club and sued to stop proposed developments. He filed lawsuits against proposed developments, sometimes winning, sometimes not.
He helped found the Little Traverse Conservancy, a local preserve that has protected 55,000 acres and 135 miles of waterfront in northern Michigan.
The Tantons gave 20 acres of wetlands to the conservancy, and donated money for the purchase of 236 acres of woods that, in December, was named the Tanton Family Working Forest Reserve.
“Boy, when he had an idea, he did something about it,” said Tom Bailey, conservancy executive director. “He didn’t just talk. He acted.”
One of the biggest threats to the environment was a growing population, Tanton believed.
During college, when he was supposed to be studying to be a doctor, he read reports by the Population Reference Bureau, a private Washington group that studies population-related issues.
When a 1965 immigration law removed quotas that favored northern Europeans and opened pathways from other nations, Tanton worried the immigrants, and their higher birthrates, would accelerate population growth.
The Tantons, who have two daughters, started a local chapter of Planned Parenthood in 1965. John joined Zero Population Growth, which warns about the perils of overpopulation, in the late ’60s and became president of the national group in 1975.
He tried to convince members of the environmental and population groups to fight for restrictions on immigration, but had little luck, said John Rohe, who wrote a 2002 book about the Tantons, “A Journey into American Conservation.”
So Tanton embarked on the crusade by himself, said Rohe.
A solitary voice at first, Tanton searched for allies in academia, politics, labor and the environmental movement, and brought them together in retreats, said colleagues. They exchanged ideas, which he published in his quarterly magazine and small press. He found sympathetic foundations to finance their work.
The fight would have to be waged through federal laws, so he set up a lobbying group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, in a cramped Washington basement in 1979. He was chairman for eight years and a board member for 32 years.
The fledgling movement needed a think tank to churn out studies supporting FAIR’s goals, so in 1985, Tanton obtained a grant that paved the way for the Center for Immigration Studies, said the center.
In 1997, he helped find the financing for a third group, NumbersUSA, which organized grassroots support for the cause.
Tanton had a knack for organization, said Otis Graham, a retired history professor who served on the FAIR board.
“All these ideas came like bullets,” Graham said last week. “He was about as talented as you can be in spurring organizations into life.”
The three Washington groups worked in tandem: FAIR lobbied Congress, CIS testified at government hearings, and NumbersUSA had followers ring legislators’ phones off the hook.
Despite being vastly outspent by a business lobby eager for foreign labor, the trio have derailed every attempt at immigration reform for 20 years, said activists on both sides of the debate.
For pro-immigration forces, a 2007 loss was especially bitter. A compromise bill that would have granted amnesty to 12 million illegal immigrants had bipartisan support and was expected to pass.
But legislators received so many calls against the measure that it shut down the Capitol switchboard, according to news reports. The bill never came up for a vote.
Tanton, who wrote end-of-the-year letters to friends describing his experiences during the previous 12 months, said in the 2007 missive he was heartened to see immigration discussed so robustly.
When Tanton created FAIR, he envisioned a centrist group. But it didn’t seem to be attracting anyone. After three years, the organization had just 4,000 members.
During a FAIR board meeting in 1982, according to meeting minutes, chairman Tanton said his nationwide travels found little interest in the group’s main message: that immigration hurt the environment and working class wages.
On the other hand, he found festering resentment against Hispanic immigrants and the rising use of Spanish in America, according to the minutes. He wanted FAIR to tap into that emotion by opposing bilingual education and demanding that public agencies use only English.
But the board demurred. It had always been careful to focus on the impact of immigration, not the immigrants themselves, said Graham.
“I didn’t feel comfortable with it,” said Graham. “I remember thinking, this is diversionary, a mistake, taking time away from us.”
And so, just like Tanton started FAIR after Zero Population Growth declined to get involved with immigration, he started U.S. English in 1983 after FAIR declined to take up the language issue.
Direct mail fundraising normally draws contributions from 1 percent of recipients, Tanton told In These Times magazine in 2006. U.S. English got 10 percent.
U.S. English quickly racked up several victories, passing initiatives that made English the official language in Colorado, Arizona, Florida and California.
“It became clear that the language question had a lot more emotional power than the immigration question,” Tanton told the magazine.
During the language campaign in Colorado in 1988, someone leaked a memo Tanton had written for a yearly immigration retreat. In the seven-page note, Tanton mused on how immigration would affect California.
“Will Latin American migrants bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe), the lack of involvement in public affairs, etc.?” he wrote.
He also fretted that Hispanics’ high birth rate would help them gain political power. “Perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!” he wrote.
After the 1986 memo was publicized, Linda Chavez resigned as president of U.S. English and iconic anchorman Walter Cronkite quit its advisory board. Tanton, the board chairman, soon followed them.
When FAIR was formed, it refrained from setting up chapters around the country. It worried about attracting the coarser elements of the anti-immigration crowd.
“We don’t want to project an image of racism, jingoism, xenophobia, chauvinism or isolationism,” Tanton wrote in FAIR’s mission statement in 1979.
Ironically, it would be Tanton whose words would come to haunt the movement.
After he donated his writings to the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, an investigator with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, rummaged through them for several weeks in 2008. Heidi Beirich combed through 17 boxes spanning 20 years of private letters, memos and journals.
Beirich found several snatches of correspondence that echoed the racial comments in the 1986 memo, the law center reported. One was a 1993 letter to ecology professor Garrett Hardin in which Tanton worried about immigration’s impact on America’s identity.
“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,” he wrote.
Beirich also discovered several troubling associations Tanton had in the movement.
Among them: Between 1982 and 1993, Tanton had obtained $1.5 million for FAIR from the Pioneer Fund, a fringe group that believed whites were genetically smarter than blacks, reported Beirich.
Tanton also promoted the work of Jared Taylor, whose magazine, American Renaissance, warned that the growing number of blacks and Hispanics were making America more dangerous, said Beirich.
“He kept tight relations with those types of extremists,” Beirich told The Detroit News last week. week of 3/6 “His connections were as radical as they come.”
A messy business
Critics used the revelations against the immigration-reduction movement. The SPLC splayed excerpts of Tanton’s writings on its website and in newspaper ads.
At the same time, the three major groups Tanton helped start distanced themselves from him.
CIS told reporters its only connection to Tanton was during the original funding. NumbersUSA said it had been independent of him since 2002. Tanton quietly left the FAIR board in 2011.
The CIS published a report in 2010 that, while accusing the SPLC of using Tanton to smear the movement, admitted some of the criticism of Tanton was justified. The report said Tanton had a provincial temperament and a tin ear.
“It’s sad,” Pat Burns, a former FAIR deputy director, told The Detroit News. “It’s like a dead cat in a well. It poisons a lot of good water. Tanton has been that cat for 30 years.”
During the 2006 interview on his website, Tanton said building a coalition was a messy business that sometimes involved engaging with people whose extreme views he didn’t necessarily share.
“There are a lot of slings and arrows that go along with being willing to take on these sensitive topics,” he said. “You have to have a tough hide to stand up to some of these things.”