Appeal court rules ‘U’ to release anti-immigration documents

Monday, June 24, 2019 - 5:03pm

The Bentley Historical Library holds John Tanton's anti-immigration documents.

The Bentley Historical Library holds John Tanton's anti-immigration documents. Buy this photo
Alexandria Pompei/Daily

With the threat of a potential deportation raid by Immigration and Customs Threat Enforcement looming in the distance, immigration attorney and advocate Hassan Ahmad celebrates his small win in his larger fight for legal immigration. 

On Thursday, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled the University of Michigan must unseal the papers of John Tanton— a man who Ahmad argues created the “groups that are most directly responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe that is our immigration system, and who is defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the “architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

Tanton, born in Detroit in 1934, is connected to a network of at least 13 anti-immigration groups, groups classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups.

Beginning in 1984, the founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform and member of NumbersUSA donated his documents to the University’s Bentley Historical Library under one condition: until 2035, 11 of the 24 archives would remain unopened.

Ahmad initially filed a Freedom of Information Act in December of 2016 to gain access to the classified documents, claiming the files “should be made public seeing as Tanton’s anti-immigrant sentiments are relevant to the views and policies of President Donald Trump, which tend to negatively affect immigrants.” 

In May 2017, the University refused Ahmad’s FOIA request, stating the sealed documents were not technically “public records” under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. Six days later, Ahmad promptly filed an appeal followed by a second rejection from counsel to the president, Liz Barry. 

Barry claimed the opening of the files would break the University’s “gift agreement” with Tanton, thus preventing future donors from providing key historical papers, “undermining the University’s essential function to preserve history.”

After Ahmad said he had “exhausted all options with the University,” the lawyer sued the University, taking the case to the Michigan Court of Claims. The case was then dismissed in November of 2017 by Judge Stephen Borrello of the Michigan Court of Circuits, who agreed with the University that the records were not public and thus exempt from disclosure. Yet again, Ahmad appealed. 

Then, two years later — and after almost four years of legal battles — the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled against the University in favor of Ahmad.

Ahmad took to Twitter to not only announce his win, but to rejoice in what he calls a win for “the transparency in government.”

“(The transparency is) all the more important when these documents show connections with known eugenicists, racial purists, and white nationalists,” Ahmad wrote. “With this decision, we took a huge step closer to breaking the seal on these documents."

Inside the Bentley’s sealed boxes include nine “Pioneer Fund” folders — a group founded to spread white supremacist ideas and provide money for race, intelligence and genetics studies— Tanton’s private messages, folders with detailed information regarding immigration protocol in various different states and information on the multiple anti-immigration groups Tanton founded, among hundreds of other documents. 

Kim Broekhuizen, associate director for the University’s Office of Public Affairs, wrote in an email to The Daily the University is still considering whether to pursue further legal action.

“We’re still reviewing the opinion and will consider our options for additional judicial review,” Broekhuizen wrote.

The court’s decision comes at a time where the future of 11 million immigrants remains uncertain, as debates over asylum law are projected to be made in about two weeks time, subsequently delaying Sunday’s planned dispatch of ICE agents to over 10 cities around the country. 

Ahmad said he hopes the Tanton papers will help unveil to the roots of the anti-immigration movement and thus potentially propose a solution for the current administration. 

“The #TantonPapers shine a light on the conceptual underpinnings of the policies that rip families apart, jail children, and create a permanent underclass,” Ahmad tweeted. " ... After all, what's in the #TantonPapers they're fighting so hard to hide?”