A petition circulating around campus and the greater Ann Arbor community is calling on the University of Michigan to release the papers of Dr. John Tanton, a U-M alum and pioneer of the anti-immigration movement in the United States.
The petition, entitled “Tell the University of Michigan: Stop Hiding White Nationalist’s Papers From The Public,” had more than 3,600 signatures as of Wednesday evening. The petition was created by third-year Law student Kerry Martin in an effort to raise awareness about Tanton’s ties to white nationalism, eugenics and anti-immigrant movements.
Tanton donated his collection of papers dating back to 1984 to the University’s Bentley Historical Library. The entire collection of records totals 25 boxes. Boxes numbered one to 14 are “open without restriction” according to the Bentley Library, but boxes 15 to 25 are to remain sealed until April 6, 2035, per Tanton’s request upon donation. Martin and other petition supporters argue that the remaining boxes should be revealed to the public sooner because of their potential connections to the current political landscape surrounding immigration.
“The petition is supposed to shine light on what the University might be hoping to do in the privacy of its archives and legal department and demonstrate that this touches a nerve with the community that the University is accountable to,” Martin said. “University of Michigan is hiding papers that most likely draw a direct link between the author of those papers and anti-immigrant sentiment at the highest levels of our nation.”
The petition is part of the larger debate over the University’s choice to keep the documents sealed. In December 2016, after reading a New York Times feature on Tanton, Hassan Ahmad, an immigration activist and attorney based in Washington, D.C., requested through the Freedom of Information Act the records in the remaining 11 boxes be made available to the public. After his request was denied, Ahmad filed an administrative appeal with the University, which was also rejected.
“The lack of transparency from the University is really alarming to me,” Ahmad said. “Why are they trying so hard to hide the papers of John Tanton? John Tanton was a white nationalist, he believed that Latinos were uneducable (and) he led the effort to make English the official language of the United States… every single idea he tossed up was anti-immigrant.”
In June 2017, Ahmad filed a lawsuit against the University. The case was dismissed the following November. After that, Ahmad teamed up with his associate and a Michigan FOIA expert, Philip Ellison, to fight the University in court. They filed an appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals and held oral arguments in Detroit in August 2018, arguing that the papers are considered public record and cannot be withheld by the University. The Court of Appeals ruled in Ahmad’s favor in June 2019, reversing the 2017 decision.
The University is still debating whether to release the remaining boxes of sealed records prior to the 2035 date. University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email that if the University chooses to uncover the papers against Tanton’s wishes, it could affect the likelihood of future donors choosing the University as the place for their own collections.
“The university argues, in part, that ‘… the Court of Appeals’ decision will have the paradoxical effect of impeding public access to knowledge,’” Fitzgerald wrote. “‘If gift agreements requiring any period of delayed public access are deemed unenforceable under FOIA, no one will donate records to a public library under such an agreement, and the public will lose access to records of invaluable historical significance.’”
The University also argues that the first 14 boxes are already available to the public, which should be utilized and researched in the meantime. However, Martin discredited this claim, citing his experience in the legal field.
“As a law student, I know the value of sifting through massive document dumps, and sometimes it is in ‘Box 18’ that you find what you need,” Martin said. “With another 11 boxes of his papers, we’re fairly confident that that picture of Dr. Tanton could come into clearer view, and therefore the illegitimate and insidious biases behind the Trump administration’s immigration policies can come into clearer view as well.”
Tanton earned graduate degrees in medicine and ophthalmology from the University in 1960 and 1964, respectively. He was played a role in the founding of various anti-immigration organizations starting in the late 1970s, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA. The left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center categorizes these organizations as the “big three” anti-immigration centers, noting that they have inspired the formation of smaller groups over the years.
The SPLC describes Tanton as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement” and cites FAIR as a white nationalist hate group. CIS is described as a nativist hate group by SPLC, and NumbersUSA is closely monitored but not categorized as a hate group.
Both CIS and NumbersUSA advocate for reductions in legal immigration to the United States but object to being labeled as “anti-immigrant” groups. Andrew Good, spokesperson for NumbersUSA, clarified the organization’s purpose in an email to The Daily.
“As for the ties, US Inc. (founded by the late Dr. Tanton) has long performed a common function in the nonprofit world of allowing startup organizations (environmental, educational, civic) to raise tax-deductible money and obtain accounting and legal services under an existing “umbrella” organization,” he wrote. “After Roy started NumbersUSA as a website with his own money in 1996, Roy raised donations under the US umbrella and paid fees to US Inc. for that opportunity and for the accounting and legal services for the independent NumbersUSA until it gained its own tax status. Roy began NumbersUSA in response to Congress in 1996 blocking the legal immigration reductions recommended by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform chaired by Rep. Barbara Jordan.”
Ahmad’s activism began in 2012, centered around the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. In January 2017, shortly after Trump’s presidential inauguration, Ahmad attended a rally at Dulles International Airport in protest of the Trump administration’s Muslim ban policy with regard to immigration and entrance into the United States. Following the protest, Ahmad noticed the links between the Trump administration’s immigration policies and Tanton’s stances on the issue.
“(Tanton) is the guy that created the organizations that are now feeding people into the Trump administration,” Ahmad said. “We’re going to be fighting these policies for the foreseeable future… we gotta find out what makes them tick, where do (these policies) come from?”
Martin echoed this sentiment, and voiced hope that the release of these papers will raise awareness of Tanton’s central influence on the current presidential administration’s stance on immigration, which Martin argues is rooted in falsehood.
“We hope and we strongly feel that releasing these papers will reveal that what the Trump administration is doing, and what anti-immigrant campaigners around the country are doing, is not actually born from legitimate policy decisions,” Martin said. “It actually is rooted in the white supremacy and racism that fueled Dr. Tanton originally.”
Stories explaining the foundation for the anti-immigration movement have recently increased, focusing on Tanton’s and others’ financial and political influence on today’s immigration rhetoric. Various figures within the Trump administration, including senior counselor Kellyanne Conway and senior policy advisor Stephen Miller have previously been affiliated with organizations Tanton founded.
Ahmad explained the organizations Tanton established have a remaining impact on today’s political landscape, some principles of which are blatantly cited in policy and others that are embedded systemically in the government’s structure. According to Ahmad, the papers sealed by the University could very likely contain the necessary information to reveal the true intentions of the current president’s administration, which he says are based in racism.
“Their legacy is to clothe white nationalism and eugenics into policies that don’t look overtly racist on their face,” Ahmad said. “We continue to have a debate on immigration in terms (created by) those who want to see a Euro-American majority in the United States… It’s very important for the University of Michigan to do the right thing here, stop fighting this case, and release those papers for the public good so that they can be studied and we can understand who these people actually are.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said John Tanton was NumbersUSA’s founder and executive. NumbersUSA was founded and led by Roy Beck, who was working for Tanton at the time of the organization’s establishment. This story has also been updated to include that while both the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA advocate for reduced levels of immigration, they claim they are not “anti-immigrant” groups.