How Racist Anti-Immigrant Groups Are Trying to Recruit Environmentalists

News & Politics

In January 2010, national leaders in ecology, sustainable business, and the larger environmental movement gathered in Washington to grapple with the problem of building "The New Green Economy." Hosted by the government-funded National Council for Science and the Environment, the event was a prestigious one.

But one of the invited speakers was hardly an environmentalist.

Roy Beck, who participated in a panel entitled "Perverse Incentives, Subsidies, and Tax Code Impediments to a Sustainable Economy," is the head of NumbersUSA, an anti-immigration group that was largely responsible for sinking a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007. Beck has spent nearly 20 years relentlessly attacking American immigration policies, even editing tracts like The Immigration Invasion, a book so raw in its nativism that Canadian authorities banned it as hate literature. More to the point, perhaps, purported environmentalist Beck's group not long ago paid nearly half a million dollars to a far-right news service— an outfit that has described global warming as a "religion" that is "impervious to evidence" and has pilloried conservationists as "anti-mankind."

So what was Beck doing talking about "greening the tax code"?

Roy Beck is part of a sweeping, renewed attempt by immigration restrictionists in America to convince environmentalists that they, too, must oppose immigration if they are to save the environment from the ravages of a growing population. Because such efforts typically have been organized by anti-immigration activists whose leading concern is not the environment — men and women who attempt to recruit conservationists and other "progressives" to their cause, sometimes even while simultaneously working with nakedly anti-environmental forces — this strategy has come to be known as "greenwashing."

In the last few years, key nativist groups have increasingly been taking up this strategy. They have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to run full-page advertisements appealing to liberals in an array of publications and have started a new group, Progressives for Immigration Reform (PFIR). They've built a series of websites aimed at "progressive" environmentalists — and many of those sites are run by people who are also principals of right-wing nativist groups.

Time and again, the hypocrisy of their claims comes to the surface. PFIR was originally registered by a Republican activist who was also involved in efforts to denounce overly liberal professors — hardly a "progressive" position. Its leader is a former attorney for one of the country's leading nativist organizations and agreed to be interviewed for a cover story in a far-right nativist journal. A nativist political action committee controlled by Mary Lou Tanton, who is married to the primary architect of the strategy of appealing to environmentalists, has given money to an array of politicians whose environmental voting records are miserable.

 "The nativist movement is clearly attempting to split the environmental movement in order to advance its own white nationalist agenda," said the Rev. David Ostendorf, who heads the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based interfaith group dedicated to "building community, justice and equality." "The greening of hate is not about the environment, conservation or population. It is about preserving the dominance of European Americans."

Early Efforts

Nativists have been working since the late 1960s to enlist environmentalists as allies in their struggle to drastically limit or end immigration. And, in fact, a great many early environmental leaders, including the powerhouse Sierra Club, did endorse the argument that population had to be stabilized and that immigration had to be reduced. Following that logic, some who started on the environmental left went even further, becoming critical not only of the numbers of immigrants but also of their impact on a "European" culture. A handful, including former Democratic Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, ended up attacking multiculturalism.

That began to change in the 1990s, largely because new evidence was making clear that the population explosion of prior decades was ending — that fertility declines dramatically as societies develop, meaning that the fear of an endlessly expanding population "bomb" was not a realistic one. At the same time, more and more environmentalists concluded that immigrants did not contribute in significant ways to such problems as urban sprawl, overconsumption of resources and traffic congestion. Many also worried about the white nationalism that seemed to be at the core of many restrictionist groups. The Sierra Club, in particular, abandoned its anti-immigration stance in 1996. Similarly, Paul Ehrlich, the author whose influential 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted a "race to oblivion" if population wasn't brought under control, eventually renounced the immigration-restrictionist position he had explicitly endorsed, instead describing fighting global poverty as the key to slowing population growth.

But John Tanton, Mary Lou Tanton's spouse and the main builder of today's nativist movement, did not move with the environmental mainstream. Instead, he continued to see immigration as a root cause of environmental degradation.

A Michigan ophthalmologist who headed the Sierra Club's Population Committee in the early 1970s, Tanton kept moving to the right, eventually coming to embrace an array of eugenicists, white nationalists and race scientists as he increasingly viewed "European-American" society as under threat. More and more, he worried about a "Latin onslaught," writing to colleagues about the necessity of maintaining "a European-American majority" in America and complaining that Latinos were less "educable" than other races. But through it all, Tanton never lost interest in wrestling the Sierra Club around to his point of view.

In 1986, Tanton wrote a private memo to staff members at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which he had founded in 1979 (and where he remains a board member today) and U.S. English, an English-only group he then headed. In addition to denigrating Latinos, the memo explicitly laid out the idea that, in order to avoid the appearance of racism, nativists needed to win over "liberal" groups like the Sierra Club. "[T]he issues we're touching on here must be broached by liberals," Tanton wrote. "The conservatives simply cannot do it without tainting the whole subject" by attracting charges of racism.

And then he got to the punch line: "The Sierra Club may not want to touch the immigration issue, but the immigration issue is going to touch the Sierra Club!"

But even then, a decade before their 1996 decision to move to a neutral stance on immigration, the views of the club's leadership were changing. By 1998, when nativists made their first concerted attempt to reverse the club's position, there were enough members opposed to reject their anti-immigration ballot proposal by a 3-to-2 margin. That was not the end of it, however. The extensive and hard-fought battle for control of the Sierra Club would continue right through 2005, when the last nativist attempt was beaten back decisively.

Now, with immigration reform back as a major national issue, a whole series of new nativist efforts to appeal to environmentalists has been launched by many of the same people who were behind the attempted "hostile takeover" of the Sierra Club. But the mainstream of the environmental movement, meanwhile, has gone in the other direction. Today, most environmentalists see blaming immigrants for environmental degradation as too simplistic.

"The ‘keep them at home' refrain of the U.S. anti-immigration movement assumes an automatic connection between immigrant-related population growth and environmental degradation," said Betsy Hartmann, director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College and the author of a book on the politics of population control. "But no such automatic connection exists. Take the issue of urban sprawl. … ‘Smart growth' advocates identify the main causes of sprawl as poor land-use planning, zoning regulations and tax laws — not population growth and immigration. In other words, it's not so much the number of people that matters, but how they live."

Back at You

The Sierra Club defeats were painful ones for the nativist movement and, for a time, restrictionists essentially licked their wounds. But it wasn't long before the immigration opponents launched new efforts to seduce environmentalists.

In 2007, Beck's group started a website called Sprawl City. Focusing on how "uncontrolled immigration" threatens "America's environmental stability," the site blames immigrants for creating sprawl. It is registered to Beck's NumbersUSA and relies, it says, on research by Beck and Leon Kolankiewicz, a man who had written for key nativist groups for years and would later advise PFIR. In 2008, a very similar site, Apply the Brakes, was mounted by a group that included one of the principals in the nativist attempt to take over the Sierra Club.

But the nativists' real attention-getting move of 2008 came with their attempt to directly target environmentalists rather than their organizations. A series of expensive, full-page ads — signed by a previously unheard-of organization with the unwieldy name of America's Leadership Team for Long Range Population-Immigration-Resource Planning (ALT) — appeared that year in relatively liberal publications, including The Nation, Harper's Magazine and The New York Times. "We're the nation's leading experts on population and immigration trends and growth," boasted the ads, which depicted highway gridlock and argued that using alternative energy resources and simultaneously reducing immigration would "reduce the threat" of rising prices of fuel and other resources. Another version of the ad warned "progressive thinkers" that the natural resources and future of the United States were in jeopardy if the country allowed continued immigration.

ALT is actually a coalition of five leading nativist organizations: FAIR, the American Immigration Control Foundation, The Social Contract Press, Californians for Population Stabilization and NumbersUSA. All five have received funding from Tanton's U.S. Inc. foundation, and the first three are listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) because of the virulent nature of their advocacy and, in FAIR's case, its ties to white supremacy.

The ads didn't come cheap. They were produced by Davis & Company Advertising Agency in Virginia Beach, Va., which tax records show was paid, between 2006 and 2008, by FAIR ($1.3 million), NumbersUSA ($1.6 million) and U.S. Inc. ($470,000). Officials of the agency did not return calls seeking comment.

Another effort begun in 2008 is just coming to fruition today. Funded to the tune of $100,000 by Tanton's U.S. Inc., the "Tomorrow's America" project is a new documentary series being created by Starlight Media Corp. That company, run by one George A. Colburn, is located near Tanton's home in Petoskey, Mich., and lists Tanton's office as its point of contact. According to the project's website, the films will portray "significant negative impacts" of both documented and undocumented immigrants on the environment. Preview clips show that a series of Tanton allies are interview subjects, including Beck, former Colorado governor Dick Lamm, and the late Father Patrick Bascio, who wrote On the Immorality of Illegal Immigration. The first edition of Bascio's 2009 book was published by American Free Press, a hate group that also publishes an anti-Semitic and conspiracy-minded periodical of the same name.

‘Progressives' for Reform

At around the same time that the ALT ads were appearing, Roy Beck began circulating a letter in search of an executive director to head a new group to be called Progressives for Immigration Reform. PFIR seemed to emerge directly from the ashes of the attempt to take over the Sierra Club in 2004 board elections; the three men making up that year's nativist slate — Dick Lamm, former Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Executive Director Frank Morris and Cornell University entomology professor David Pimentel —joined PFIR's boards at the start. By the time it opened its doors in 2009, PFIR had landed funding from the $400-million-plus Colcom Foundation, whose vice president of philanthropy is Tanton's close friend, fawning biographer and former U.S. Inc. staff member John Rohe.

PFIR's site describes the organization as dedicated to exposing the threat of "mass migration" and seeking "population stabilization." A PFIR official last year told SPLC that current immigration policies are "unsustainable with regard to energy consumption, availability of fresh water and preservation of wilderness."

The executive director who was finally selected to head PFIR was, in many ways, hardly a surprise. She was Leah Durant, an African-American lawyer who had earlier worked at FAIR's legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute.

Durant, a former Department of Justice staffer who defended government civil immigration cases, had given FAIR cover on the "diversity" front before. She was a speaker at a 2006 press conference held to announce the creation of Choose Black America (CBA), ostensibly an anti-illegal immigration group composed of concerned African Americans. In fact, as the SPLC pointed out at the time, CBA was a front group whose black "members" were selected, flown to the press conference in Washington, D.C., and lodged there by FAIR. Its spokesman was a white FAIR official, and it fell apart soon afterward.

PFIR's claim to being "progressive" — at least in the way most people understand that word — is dubious at best. It was originally registered as an organization in Colorado in 2007 by Ryan Richard Call, a man who confirmed to the SPLC that he was a former Republican college activist who later held several "Colorado GOP positions." More importantly, Call had been a member of the far-right Students for Academic Freedom, which argued that America's college professors are too liberal and aimed "to end political abuse of the university."

A search of federal and state records turned up just one donation by Durant to a political candidate — a 2007 gift to Republican James O'Brien, who was making a bid for a Virginia state senate seat. In his campaign that year, O'Brien attacked his opponent for wanting "to teach children to accept the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Lifestyle." He also highlighted his perfect record in opposing abortion rights and supporting the National Rifle Association.

In summer 2009, after taking the helm of PFIR, Durant agreed to be interviewed by Tanton's racist journal The Social Contract, which had earlier run special editions on such topics as "Europhobia." It's unclear how much she knew about the journal, but it was certainly well known in the circles she and other FAIR lawyers traveled in. Peter Gemma conducted the cover story question-and-answer interview with Durant. Although Durant may not have known it, Gemma was for many years the "media coordinator" for the Capital Region of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), a white supremacist hate group that has described blacks as "a retrograde species of humanity," once compared the late pop singer Michael Jackson to an ape, and, as part of its basic platform, has long "oppose[d] all efforts to mix the races of mankind." The CCC also has long railed against the immigration of non-whites to America.

Durant did not respond to repeated phone and E-mail requests for comment this spring. A year earlier, however, she seemed concerned to distance PFIR from Tanton, who founded FAIR, the organization she once worked for. "PFIR has no connection with FAIR, and John Tanton is neither a board member nor founder," she wrote the SPLC, adding, "Also, as an African American, I take offense at being called racist." Apparently, the offense was a slight one. A few months after writing those words, Durant attended Tanton's 33rd annual "Writers Workshop," where she posed for a photo with Gemma and racist Social Contract editor Wayne Lutton.

The Hypocrisy of Hate

The hypocrisy of nativists seeking to pose as environmentalist liberals can be stunning. Roy Beck — whose NumbersUSA is, together with FAIR, leading the current attempt to recruit liberals — paid some $444,150 in 2006 and 2007 to NewsMax Media, a far-right online publication that has run articles mocking the idea of global warming and arguing that "there is not a shred of evidence that DDT poses the least kind of threat to the health of the planet's people." Unsurprisingly, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the 1962 book that called DDT into question, is described by NewsMax as "based on myth." In fact, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane was banned in the United States in 1972 due to the harm it caused, and it was later banned worldwide for agricultural use.

Mary Lou Tanton, whose husband first conceived the idea of taking over the Sierra Club, runs the US Immigration Reform PAC. The political action committee has donated to 69 candidates who were ultimately elected. Taken together, these politicians' average environmental voting score, as compiled and graded by the League of Conservation Voters, is a miserable 14%. One of them, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), has called global warming "the biggest hoax ever." Another, nativist hardliner and former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo, received a paltry 3% score. Tanton's PAC also supported Michael Peroutka, a member of the neo-secessionist League of the South, a hate group that opposes racial intermarriage and says slavery was "God-ordained." As 2004 presidential candidate for the far-right Constitution Party, Peroutka gave an interview to "The Political Cesspool," an infamous radio show that has hosted an array of racists and anti-Semites.

For his part, John Tanton, through his U.S. Inc., spent about $150,000 with a direct-mail fundraising agency called Eberle Associates. Eberle is hardly liberal — it describes itself as the place where "for more than 30 years conservative leaders from around the nation have turned … [to] realize their dreams." Among its other clients are The Conservative Caucus, Americans for Tax Reform, American Border Patrol (listed by SPLC as a hate group) and Pro English, a Tanton English-only group.

Tanton's funders aren't much different. The Swensrud Foundation has long supported U.S. Inc., FAIR and the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that began life as part of FAIR. (Two of Swensrud's trustees, Nancy S. Anthony and Steven B. Swensrud, now sit on FAIR's board.) It also backs three conservative groups that have ridiculed the idea of global warming: the Heritage Foundation, the Young America's Foundation, and the Washington Legal Foundation.

The chief political allies of FAIR, NumbersUSA, and most of the country's other major nativist groups are found in the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, headed by U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), a former FAIR lobbyist. The caucus' 95 members score an average 11% on the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) scorecard. Similarly, Reclaim American Jobs, a new worker-friendly congressional caucus started by Beck, has 27 members with an average 8% LCV score.

The activists behind the latest greenwashing attempts are engaging in a series of cynical, self-interested attempts to recruit environmentalists that have little to do with a serious effort to confront environmental problems. The hypocrisy of their claim to be "progressives" is, in many cases, self-evident. But their well-orchestrated attempts in the past, like the 2004 siege of the Sierra Club, should serve as a warning — the nativists, like wolves in sheep's clothing, are wily and capable opponents.

"John Tanton and the anti-immigration network he built have been greenwashing their racist agenda for far too long," said Tarso Ramos, executive director of Political Research Associates, a Massachusetts organization that has long monitored the American radical right. "These folks haven't done a thing to reduce American consumption rates, constrain extractive industries or hold polluters accountable. Yet they're working overtime to convince actual environmentalists to do their dirty work — blaming immigrants for environmental degradation."

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