Mark Krikorian is tapping the earpiece of his glasses — into the center of his right eye.
“This eye doesn’t track,” he says by way of explaining his slightly distracted, far-off gaze.
“It’s fake,” he says, his tapping drawing a quizzical glance from a neighboring table in Siroc, the demure downtown Washington restaurant. “It’s a prosthesis. The guys who do it are called ocularists. It’s really almost more of an art form. German immigrants brought over the expertise.”
Immigrants, says America’s metronome of immigration criticism. Like his grandmother, the Armenian genocide survivor. Like his grandfather, the Armenian grocer with two wooden legs.
In Krikorian’s world view, there is good immigration — the kind that happened long ago. And there is bad immigration — the kind that happens now. There are immigrants who melt into a place and let it melt into them, and there are immigrants who inhabit a place without allowing it to inhabit them. “America has outgrown mass immigration,” he says.
Krikorian doesn’t control any votes in the immigration fight that is consuming Congress, and he wields no legal authority over the mass of humanity streaming across U.S. borders every day. His domain is something less tangible but no less potent: the realm of ideas. In less than a decade, this rumpled, 52-year-old think-tank director — this affable provocateur, this whorl of potential contradictions, this threader of logic needles — has become one of the chief intellectual architects of the movement to slow immigration to a trickle. Krikorian championed “enforcement by attrition,” the concept that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney seemed to translate with such disastrous results as “self-deportation.”
Since 1995, Krikorian has run the Center for Immigration Studies, which is now housed in a small suite of offices on K Street. The tiny institute — about a dozen staffers operating on a $2 million annual budget, puny by comparison with the business interests and big liberal think tanks it duels — generates an astounding volume of studies and opinion pieces with the common themes that mass migration exacts a heavy economic and psychic toll on the United States. But Krikorian’s greatest platform may be the media, where he’s taken up permanent residence as the ever-reliable counterpoint in stories about efforts to change the immigration system and as a blogger at National Review Online. “I’m a hack and a flack,” Krikorian says, chuckling. “I give good quote.”
This is why he is a man to be reckoned with, especially for those who want to crack open the border a bit more and let immigrants who are already here illegally find a path to citizenship. The targeter has become the target, pressed from the left and the right to explain the provenance of his organization, its motives, its means.
And so, a Washington question of the moment — Can immigration reform pass? — might be reframed this way: Can Mark Krikorian be stopped?
The voices of Mark Krikorian’s childhood sounded like Armenia. His parents had been born in the United States, but for reasons that they never articulated with any great precision, they spoke English to each other but only Armenian to their children. “It just sort of seemed like the thing to do,” Krikorian says. Their fealty to the language of their forefathers was so complete that Krikorian couldn’t speak English when he started kindergarten.
The family lived in an “immigrant milieu,” Krikorian recalls. Their existence was defined less by the cities that his itinerant father, a chef and restaurant manager, settled the family in — New Haven, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Boston again — than by the community formed in the Armenian churches they attended. “I didn’t even intellectually understand that there were old people who didn’t speak without an accent,” he recalls.
Immigrant narratives comprise the family lore. His grandfathers came to the United States in the years before World War I to escape repression in the Ottoman Empire. His Armenian grandmother survived the carnage of World War I, only to be captured and sold into slavery and later to find her way to Marseilles, France, as a servant girl. An arranged marriage, held in Havana so she could legally enter the United States, sprung her from that life.
When Krikorian was 3 months old, he lost his right eye because of a retinal blastoma. As a child, he once plucked his fake eye out of the socket and tossed it into a produce bin, according to a favorite family story. The little boy was delighted when a store manager announced a search over the loudspeaker and shoppers scrambled to locate the missing orb.
Krikorian would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Georgetown and a master’s at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, but he was more interested in “goofing off,” he says, than starting in a profession. He studied for two years at Yerevan University in Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union. On his return to Washington, he dawdled with a job waiting tables at Au Pied de Cochon in Georgetown and was at “loose ends,” he says, when he finally caught a spark.
Paradoxically, the boy who couldn’t speak English before kindergarten found himself furious about the national trend toward teaching school courses in more than one language. “The whole idea of bilingual education teed me off,” Krikorian says.
In 1987, he tried to get a job at U.S. English, a group that advocated making English the official language of the United States. But his pitch — “Hi, I have no skills” — left something to be desired. The U.S. English folks had nothing for Krikorian, but they must have seen something in him. They sent him upstairs to another organization that was looking for a newsletter writer. That group was called the Federation for American Immigration Reform, known as FAIR, and the next year they hired him.
Krikorian was about to join a crusade.
Seven years later, CIS was looking for a new director. Three of its board members sifted through candidates at the exclusive Cosmos Club in downtown Washington. Krikorian was familiar to his prospective employers because he’d spent a year working for FAIR writing newsletters before moving on to stints as a writer and editor at the Winchester Star in Virginia and trade publications in Washington. George Grayson, a William and Mary government professor who serves on the CIS board, saw a candidate that day whose values aligned with the group’s. “He’s quite committed to having a reasonable level of population in the country,” Grayson said of Krikorian in an interview.
Krikorian wanted to establish CIS as a credible voice that drew on substance and scholarly inquiry rather than emotion. “We have to dare to be dull,” he says. His opponents invariably portray him as a purveyor of “junk science.”
He was quippy and quotable. Within months of taking over CIS, he appeared at a news conference to dispute a study that asserted immigrants weren’t taking jobs from Americans. “When was the last time you saw an American cabdriver in Washington, or an American construction worker in Texas?” he said. Later his group titled a report “Hello, I Love You, Won’t You Tell Me Your Name: Inside the Green Card Marriage Phenomenon.”
As CIS gained traction, critics scoured its roots for clues about its intentions. Two groups — the Southern Poverty Law Center and later a cohort of Republicans pushing for immigration reform — focused on John Tanton, a Michigan eye doctor who is the father of the modern anti-immigration movement. Tanton helped found FAIR, U.S. English and a NumbersUSA, a group that advocates reduced immigration. And in 1985, he also set in motion the Center for Immigration Studies, or CIS. Tanton wrote that the think tank “for credibility . . . will need to be independent from FAIR, though the Center for Immigration Studies, as we’re calling it, is starting off as a project of FAIR”; it was being formed because the movement was losing “ground in the Battle of Ideas.”
In 2002, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a scathing report that accused Tanton of consorting with white supremacists, of disseminating racist screeds through a publishing house he had founded and of supporting eugenics. A decade later, the Republican immigration advocates would paint the Tanton-founded groups as advocates of a zero-population growth mind-set.
The law center’s claims of racism were buttressed by the appearance of some white nationalists at annual “Writers Workshops” organized by Tanton’s publishing operation, the Social Contract. Krikorian has attended the workshops. “The fact that Krikorian shows up at these things shows he is unwilling to sever a relationship with bald-faced racists,” says Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “These guys are always coy about their relationship with Tanton.” (According to IRS records unearthed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, CIS gets about half its funding from the Colcom Foundation, a group whose philanthropy director is a longtime Tanton collaborator. The foundation is dedicated to fostering “a sustainable environment to ensure quality of life for all Americans by addressing major causes and consequences of overpopulation and its adverse effects on natural resources.”)
Krikorian calls white nationalism “pernicious” and “an evil thing.” But he draws a cause-and-effect correlation between white nationalism — as well as “black nationalism” and “Chicano nationalism,” for that matter — and immigration. High levels of immigration, he says, have led to the creation of a political ideology of multiculturalism. He cites, for instance, the census designation of Latino/Hispanic; he’d rather that ethnicity not to be highlighted. The backlash is nationalism, he says.
“So don’t be surprised and complain that there’s a white nationalist movement,” he says. “Spare me the outrage that there are white nationalists among immigration critics. There are racial chauvinists on the high immigration side.”
The criticism from the Southern Poverty Law Center seemed to do little to hamper the effectiveness of CIS and the other groups Tanton helped form. In 2007, all three groups were instrumental in defeating a Republican- and Bush administration-backed immigration reform package that seemed well on its way to passage. And in 2011, they again played a key role in smacking down efforts to pass a major immigration proposal: the Dream Act, which would have granted permanent residency to immigrants who entered the country as children.
But being Mark Krikorian was about to get more challenging.
Last year, as momentum was building for a new comprehensive immigration law, Alfonso Aguilar kept thinking about the defeat in 2007. NumbersUSA had flooded legislative offices with faxes, and CIS had churned out reports attacking the proposal. Aguilar, who had served as chief of the U.S. Citizenship Office in the Bush administration, joined with other Republican reform advocates to develop a strategy designed to target CIS, FAIR and NumbersUSA.
“We went after them to unmask them,” Aguilar says. “At the end, this is what this is all about: It’s about population. To me, it’s an argument of radical environmentalists.”
Krikorian, who had battled liberals earlier in the decade, found himself at war with conservatives. “What Alfonso’s doing is the right hook after the left hook failed to knock us out,” Krikorian says in an interview.
At his office one afternoon, Krikorian muses that he couldn’t be a population control zealot and have three children. On the coffee table in front of him is a Chia Pet Statue of Liberty. On the shelves in the lobby, he displays dozens of Statue of Liberty collectibles: Mr. Potato Head as the Statue of Liberty, Barbie, Mickey Mouse, a hula dancer, a skeleton. On the cover of his 2008 book, “The New Case Against Immigration,” Lady Liberty extends her hand in a gesture that screams, “Stay out.” Krikorian writes that the United States has a government-administered population policy — “just like Communist China and the Soviet Union . . . in our case it’s mass immigration.”
“Mass immigration is social engineering,” he says in an interview. “It is Congress second-guessing American moms and dads, saying they’re not having enough children.”
Krikorian posits that a state of competition for jobs exists between “black Americans” and Latinos. One afternoon, he tells the story of a downtown Washington restaurant he and his staff frequented. When a Latino manager replaced an African American manager, the staff abruptly shifted from almost entirely African American to almost entirely Latino. If employers couldn’t count on cheap immigrant labor, they might have more incentives to support policies that would help blacks, he argues.
Krikorian regularly bludgeons almost every aspect of the immigration proposal by the Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” which would create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally. He co-wrote a widely cited cover story for National Review with the headline “Rubio’s Folly,” a reference to Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who has become the face of the immigration proposal. In the piece, Krikorian argues that the proposal would permit a huge immigration increase, a contention disputed by the bill’s authors.
Krikorian advocates a stripped-down immigration system that he says would deeply reduce the number of immigrants. He would admit what he calls “moral cases” — husbands, spouses and children — a few “real Einsteins” and refugees.
He’s mulling another book in which he would explicate the complexities of “inter-marriage.” As an example, he mentions the children of a cousin of his. She has Armenian roots and is married to a Salvadoran. Their children “can be as Hispanic or as non-Hispanic as they want to be,” he says. “They’ll be checking the Hispanic box when they apply to college — I can guarantee you that.”
It’s a muggy Tuesday night, and Krikorian is steering his Toyota Prius into the parking lot of a dreary office building in Falls Church. The man behind the wheel of the hybrid vehicle is a “crunchy conservative” who says he sometimes pops into Edible Arrangements to collect bags of melon rinds or Starbucks for loads of coffee grounds to replenish his compost pile.
In the building’s hallway, a group of middle-aged men and women — all immigrants — file toward the elevator. They’ve just finished a citizenship class sponsored by Catholic Charities for green-card holders who want to prepare for the civics test they must take to become citizens. Krikorian will be the instructor for the class that starts in a few minutes. This has been his Tuesday night routine for about 11 / 2 years, he says.
On the subject of immigration, Krikorian frets about almost everything, but little seems to animate him as much as his concerns about multiculturalism and his contention that “Spanish-speaking people” have “the potential to create an alternative mainstream” in the United States. “A lot of the immigration pushers don’t like America the way it is,” he says. “They want to change it.”
In a spare conference room, four men settle into plastic chairs before Krikorian. They’re Latinos — Bolivians and Salvadorans. “No, no, no,” he says with a smile when two of the men start speaking Spanish to each other. No Spanish allowed in class.
“Why do people come to America?” he asks the class.
“Come on, why do people come to America? You know it,” he urges.
“Freedom?” a Bolivian construction worker suggests.
When the men answer tough questions, Krikorian hands them little American flags.
Krikorian, whose birthday is Flag Day, once said the purpose of immigration was to Americanize people. On this night, in this conference room with scuff marks on the walls, he seems content in the belief that he is doing just that: making new Americans.