On August 15, Lee Francis Cissna, the director of the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS), sat down for a press event with the hate group Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which was founded by white nationalist John Tanton. One might ask what the head of a major government organization was doing palling around with a hate group. The truth is that this was not an isolated event, and that there is an anti-immigrant network Tanton founded and which CIS is a part of, which has become integral to the Trump Administration for both staffing and policy reasons. This network’s influence helps to explain the zealous attacks on immigrants and the white nationalist connections that have become the hallmark of this Administration. This influence has been beneficial for the network, which enjoys increased influence and donations.
John Tanton, originally a Michigan ophthalmologist, began to build a network of anti-immigrant organizations in the 1970’s. The three main anti-immigrant organizations he founded are NumbersUSA, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). The Southern Poverty Law Center has listed the latter two as hate groups. Just today, we learned that a former employee at FAIR recently filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination, saying “racial slurs” were used against him, and claiming he was “made fun of for being Hispanic”. The former employee, Joe Gomez, said his experience helps confirm that FAIR is in fact a hate group.
Tanton’s racist ideas have been a matter of the public record since the 1980’s. His early financial backers, the Pioneer Fund, like him believed in eugenics and white racial superiority. And two of Tanton’s friends are prominent white nationalists Jared Taylor and Peter Brimelow, who run the white nationalist websites American Renaissance and VDARE, respectively. A connection to Brimelow was the reason why a White House speechwriter was fired last week.
There remain many connections between the Trump White House and one or more of Tanton’s extremist groups. Alumni, supporters, and colleagues of FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA have been vocal cheerleaders both inside and outside of the Administration for some of Trump’s worst immigration policies, including the increase in indiscriminate ICE raids, separations at the border, ending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for hundreds of thousands of families, ending help for children who are U.S. citizens but whose parents happens to be immigrants, and attempting to end DACA for Dreamers.
Here are just some of many of the connections between the Trump Administration and John Tanton’s anti-immigrant network:
- Jeff Sessions, Trump’s Attorney General, who currently has immense power over immigration policy, has been meeting with the Tanton network since at least the 1990s and been a constant ally and one of the strongest champions of their ideas ever since. Sessions was an important conduit for placing former staffers sympathetic to anti-immigrant throughout the Trump Administration. These include: Gene Hamilton, who while at the DHS masterminded the end to DACA for Dreamers; Danielle Cutrona who served on Trump’s immigration transition team; Alan Hanson who runs the Office of Justice Programs; Rick Dearborn who worked for Legislative, Intergovernmental Affairs and Implementation, and post prominently, Stephen Miller.
- Stephen Miller, currently a senior advisor to the President, has his own history with the network and has been the most aggressive and prominent promoter of their ideas inside the White House. He was the keynote speaker at a 2015 CIS event and once said that a conversation with CIS’ research director was “one of the great pleasures of my professional life.”
- At least three top Administration officials have appeared at events with CIS, including Lee Francis Cissna, the director of USCIS; Thomas Homan, then-acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); and James McHenry, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
- Since the 1990s, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, provided polling for FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA.
- The head of Trump’s failed voter commission and sometimes immigration advisor, Kris Kobach, was employed by Tanton’s network for over a decade and is deeply entangled in its organizational web.
- Trump nominated Ronald Mortensen for Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, which oversees the U.S. response to refugees. Mortensen has written for CIS since 2009, but his nomination has been aggressively contested by human rights and faith groups.
- Julie Kirchner, former executive director of FAIR, left in 2015 to work as an immigration advisor to the Trump campaign. She was later appointed to Chief of Staff at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and then became the ombudsman for USCIS.
- Robert Law is a senior policy adviser to USCIS, but was previously the lobbying director for FAIR.
- Jon Feere, a long time staffer at CIS, was hired as a senior advisor at ICE.
- NumbersUSA and CIS claimed to have met with Trump and top officials throughout Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Trump used their data in one of his campaign ads.
- Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) and a current candidate for U.S. Senate, sits on the Board of Directors for FAIR and worked on Trump’s transition team.
- Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President, was the CEO of Breitbart, which frequently reports on the Tanton network’s “research” and gives column space to Tanton allies. Bannon’s favorite book, a racist French novel, was published in English by another of Tanton’s organizations.
The deep connections that Tanton’s anti-immigrant network has in the Trump Administration is concerning in its own right; but the immediate and long term effects of its influence on policy will continue to be devastating for the lives of countless immigrants. Under the Trump Administration, CIS, FAIR, NumbersUSA, and the rest of the Tanton network have more power than ever — and they’re using it to reshape American immigration policy, possible for decades to come.