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

'A Great Clash'

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)

It's difficult to square the label of xenophobic misanthrope with the image of the retired ophthalmologist who weeps at the memory of removing a bandage from the eyes of a patient, and having him see again.

Tanton chose his profession and the town of Petoskey because they afforded him the time to raise a family, maintain a vegetable garden, raise honeybees and work on issues he cared about. Population control became the overriding theme early on.

In 1964, while he was interning in a Denver hospital, his young wife, Mary Lou, provided family planning information to low-income women who had wanted two children but were leaving the maternity ward with their fifth or sixth. In this, Tanton saw a looming apocalypse, living evidence of the theory postulated in Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book, "The Population Bomb" -- left unchecked, the world's population would double every 35 years, occupying the remaining habitable open space and overrunning cities and towns.

This did not come to pass. But, Tanton says, the threat is still out there. "I'm anti-immigrant like a person on a diet is anti-food," he insists. But the intake must be controlled. "You don't wait till you're at 390 million [people] and think you can deal with the problem." His ideas became even more focused after he read the French novel "The Camp of the Saints," a darkly prophetic allegory of a million destitute people fleeing Kolkata and landing in Europe, where they loot, rape and pillage.

"Camp," which Tanton had translated and reprinted in English by Social Contract Press, his small publishing house, has been criticized as a racist parable with one message: Keep the savages out. Once, Tanton says, he was surprised by this kind of reaction. Now he simply dismisses it as an emotional response to a tangible problem.

He calls this the "Statue of Liberty phase" of the immigration debate, when proponents cite the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed in bronze on the base of the statue: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." This, to his mind, misses the point:

"You have on the one hand an economic system that as best as I can see is based on perpetual growth," and a finite space -- the United States -- to accommodate it. "Sooner or later there's going to be a great clash between those two and the question is who's going to come out on top," he says. "My perspective is that Mother Nature bats last." He envisions rivers running dry, crop shortages, polluted water and air.

Frank Sharry is executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group that has frequently butted heads with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which Tanton created. Sharry says that Tanton and his ilk might think they're going to save the republic. But "I can't help but fear that at the root of their views is a disturbing combination of the idea there are some people who are good, some who are bad and overall there are way too many people to begin with. And that's an ideological strain that seems to me a bit off the chart."

That's how the Sierra Club read it as well in the '70s when Tanton, a member of its population committee, tried to get the board to adopt immigration as a cause. When this was voted down, he and his allies encouraged other like-minded candidates to run for the board.

Carl Pope, who was executive director at the time, considered it a hostile takeover attempt that reverberated for years. "The whole idea of people trying to hijack an organization to advance their cause was outrageous," says Pope. "And I found many of the things he had said since I had known him deplorable and unconscionable." (Tanton later wrote that "the Sierra Club may not want to touch the immigration issue, but the immigration issue is going to touch the Sierra Club!") Rebuffed, Tanton created first FAIR and then U.S. English, a group to promote English as the official language of the United States.

"Immanuel Kant once said language and religion are the ultimate dividers of society," Tanton explains. "With my physician's background, I thought prevention would let us get ahead of this problem."

He was persuasive enough to attract some prominent voices to U.S. English, but a 1986 memo backfired big-time. Asserting that immigrants' higher birth rates would lead to a nation dominated by their descendants, he wrote: "Perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!" Walter Cronkite and the group's executive director, Linda Chavez, quit in protest. Eventually Tanton stepped down.

But he went on to found nearly a dozen other groups.

Tanton has tempered his rhetoric in recent years. But Clarissa Martinez, policy director for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization, finds it a source of endless frustration that his organizations, which she regards as hate groups, have been treated as credible actors in Washington policy debates, testifying at congressional hearings, offering research and even winning a contract with the Census Bureau.

"On the surface there's legitimate policy they are debating, but they're having the debate in code. . . . It's not just how many people are coming, it's who are coming," Martinez says.

Seasonal Migration

On a recent morning Tanton drives along Little Traverse Bay, heading through town. In the winter, it's mostly empty. In the summer, the roads fill up with people coming to their vacation homes. The restaurants, hotel staffs and cleaning services fill with migrant workers -- many from as far as Jamaica. Otherwise, of the town's few immigrants, most are educated professionals -- doctors, teachers, scientists.

He passes the spot where he and Mary Lou camped when he first came to town to interview for a job at the hospital. Down the street, they once marched beside a Planned Parenthood float that declared: Whatever your cause, it's lost without population control. He drives past the 20 acres of wetlands and meadows he and his wife donated earlier this year for open space. He takes satisfaction in what he doesn't see: a waterfront community of 400 homes that he sued to stop 40 years ago, because the developer wanted to dam a creek to create a lake.

But he also knows that the numbers are against him. Here in Petoskey, the results of his work are evident. It's a small place, where one man can make a difference. But beyond the bay is Lake Michigan, and beyond that the great expanse of the continental United States, and he knows it's filling up with people.


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