Correction to This Article
A Nov. 26 Style article included an incorrect former job title for Carl Pope. He was the political director, not the executive director, of the Sierra Club in the 1970s. The article also should also have noted that the book 'Camp of the Saints' was translated by Charles Scribner's Sons. -- A Nov. 26 Style article misattributed the comments of a representative of the National Council of La Raza who was speaking about anti-immigration groups. They were made by Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for policy, not Clarissa Martinez, policy director.

On Immigration, A Theorist Who's No Fence-Sitter

John Tanton hikes on the North Country Trail, near Petoskey, Mich. Tanton believes that unchecked immigration will drain the country's resources.
John Tanton hikes on the North Country Trail, near Petoskey, Mich. Tanton believes that unchecked immigration will drain the country's resources. (By Lance Wynn -- Grand Rapids Press)
By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26, 2006

PETOSKEY, Mich. -- Let's just get this out of the way. John Tanton, mastermind of the modern-day movement to curb immigration, is a tree-hugger. Literally. He has a favorite pair of ash trees "this big around," he says, spreading his arms wide. He likes to visit them every so often in the forest just north of here, see how they're doing.

He worries about them, too, whether -- or when -- the invaders, the metallic green emerald ash borers, will overwhelm them, wipe one of the dominant native tree species off the North American continent. To think that this little bug could do such a thing, he says, "it's just hard to take."

It's snowing as he sits in his office on the main street of Petoskey (population 6,080, 94 percent white, 3 percent Native American, less than 1 percent Asian or black, according to the 2000 Census). The white blanketing the town lends it a Norman Rockwell feel, with Little Traverse Bay serving as a backdrop to the quaint storefronts and Victorian clapboard architecture. Rampaging hordes seem far, far away.

Yet as he considers the future, Tanton's brow wrinkles and beneath his desk he clasps his hands, which sometimes shake from the effects of Parkinson's disease. He is 72, a retired country doctor, and it's been nearly 30 years since he first went to Washington to raise the alarm about unfettered population growth. Since then, he has formed, led or contributed to more than a dozen groups that promote strict immigration limits. And for this, he's earned the label "The Puppeteer" from the Southern Poverty Law Center. "John Tanton," the center declared in its journal, Intelligence Report, "can claim without exaggeration that he is the founding father of America's modern anti-immigration movement."

His tireless efforts have created the impression of a powerful grass-roots movement against immigration, his opponents say, but it all points back to one man. At the same time his early roots in such environmental groups as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society have lent him a mainstream credibility.

Three decades after he began agitating about it, immigration has become a hot-button issue -- the House passed a $6 billion bill to build a fence along the Mexican border, and several local governments have passed measures to crack down on illegal immigrants already here. But the courts have struck down several of these.

Tanton worries -- how will the United States survive the "invasion" of people from Central and Latin America, not to mention China and Korea? More than ever, he is convinced that as they continue to come -- waves of legal and illegal "interlopers" -- the environment, the culture and the economy of the country will irreparably erode.

"We have 19 cities now on the globe with more than 10 million people in them," he says. "Only one of them [Tokyo] is in the First World. So all the rest of them have got poor water supplies, poor sewage, poor public services."

The effects, to him, are easy to imagine.

"So what happens is the next round of SARS doesn't get contained," he says. Beyond that, it's not too much of a stretch for him to envision war and famine over dwindling resources.

Hyperbole? To his mind, the unchecked exaggeration is coming from his opponents, who have branded him a xenophobe and a racist.

"So many conversations on immigration don't go anywhere," he says, "it's just people venting feelings. . . . Okay, I agree your grandmother is a great person. Does that mean you're for open borders? That's not a prescription for social peace."

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