One Face of the Anti-Immigration Movement

Christopher Hayes profiles John Tanton, a conservationist and “progressive” who helped to create the comtemporary anti-immigration movement, in In These Times.

In 1969, Tanton started and chaired the population committee of his local Sierra Club chapter, and when Ehrlich and like-minded environmentalists founded the advocacy group Zero Population Growth (ZPG), he became one of its most active members, rising to its presidency in 1975. By then, the birthrate for Americans had declined below the replacement rate, but the American population was projected to keep growing. Tanton settled on the culprit: immigration.

The number of immigrants was still small by today’s standards but had started to creep upwards, thanks in part to a 1965 immigration bill that instituted family reunification policies and did away with 40 years of quotas that heavily favored northern Europeans. Since immigrants had higher birthrates, reducing their numbers would allow the United States to achieve the zero population growth that had seemed a pipe dream only a few years earlier.

Tanton pushed for the Sierra Club to take a strong stand to reduce immigration, but the organization balked. He didn’t have much more success with his fellow travelers at ZPG. Tanton chalks it up to fear of tackling a taboo subject, but it seems just as likely that they couldn’t see why it mattered on which side of the Rio Grande someone was born. Today, ZPG, since renamed Population Connection, takes what its current president, John Seager, calls a “global approach,” supporting female literacy, access to birth control and family-planning services in the developing world. If Tanton’s concern is the health of the planet, why doesn’t he subscribe to this view? He explains that reducing immigration will force countries like Mexico to confront their own population growth rates. “Each country,” he says, “ought to try to match its population to its resource base.”