In the late 1970s, a tight corps of environmentalists and population-control advocates--card-carrying liberals all--discerned what they regarded as a looming menace: new immigrants.
The influx of newcomers was undermining hard-won ecological victories, the activists concluded during think sessions in a woodsy enclave on the shores of Lake Michigan. Something had to be done.
Thus was born the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which was officially launched in 1979 in a cramped Washington, D.C., basement with contributions from like-minded liberals.
Today, with immigration issues at the forefront of the nation's agenda, FAIR has evolved from a tenacious fringe-player into a seemingly ubiquitous advocate for sealing the nation's porous borders and reducing immigration.
Now with a membership of 50,000, FAIR has become a well-funded, highly successful pressure group, wielding considerable clout on Capitol Hill, in Sacramento and in the realm of public opinion.
FAIR's spokespeople and copious position papers are often the only non-government sources cited by news media in immigration stories. Aggressive direct mail campaigns and publicity blitzes have enlisted tens of thousands of supporters, particularly in California.
For more than a year, FAIR has been trying to whip up public support for a moratorium on most immigration into the country until illegal entry can be shut off.
Unable to win congressional support for the proposal, the group has endorsed a plan that would cap legal immigration at 300,000 per year, institute border-crossing fees with the money going to beef up border security, and improve efforts to cut off jobs and benefits to illegal immigrants--all longtime FAIR objectives.
Consistent with its population-control roots, the group argues that the United States has to limit growth to prevent environmental degradation. "No country has the capacity to indefinitely absorb the equivalent of the population of New York City every five years," states one FAIR position paper.
FAIR has commissioned academic studies on the economic impact of immigration and financed opinion polls that reflect a growing public resentment of illegal immigration.
"Our message is finally getting through," said Alan C. Nelson, former immigration chief in the Reagan Administration who serves as FAIR's Sacramento lobbyist. "It's our turn at bat."
With success, though, has come intensified scrutiny and heightened controversy related to the organization.
To critics, FAIR has become synonymous with xenophobia, racism and intolerance--particularly directed against Latino newcomers and their families.
"We have no doubt that FAIR's appeal is blatantly racial," said Cecilia Munoz, senior immigration policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. "But they're very good at hovering around what is considered acceptable discourse."
Detractors point to what they term questionable funding sources and racially insensitive writings by the organization's founder, Michigan ophthalmologist John H. Tanton.
Among other tactics, Munoz and others cite FAIR's often-stereotypical depictions of immigrants as criminals, welfare cheats and opportunistic indolents.
FAIR officials flatly reject charges of racism.
"We have been quite adamant about the necessity that immigration policy not discriminate on the basis of race or national origin," said Daniel A. Stein, a lawyer and former congressional staffer who serves as the group's $120,000-a-year executive director and principal fund-raiser.
Indeed, FAIR has fought perceived favored treatment for white immigrants from Europe. However, the group's restrictionist positions impact most heavily on those from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, the groups that account for most recent immigrants.
"FAIR may be race blind in their rhetoric, but the consequences of what they want is disproportionately felt by people of color," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an umbrella coalition of about 200 immigrant-advocate organizations.
Recently, FAIR accused the forum of unleashing "a fanatical and hysterical direct mail fear campaign" against the federation. "They must perceive that we're being effective or they wouldn't be attacking us so virulently," Stein said.
Apart from mailing and advertising campaigns, critics say FAIR spreads its message through the dozens of community-based immigration "control" groups that have proliferated in recent years, particularly in California.
Although FAIR has no formal links to organizations such as the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (an alliance with more than a dozen member groups and 10,000 followers statewide), the federation's network of grass-roots activists provides data, speakers and other assistance.
"I see all these groups as spinoffs of FAIR, sort of tentacles of the same octopus," Sharry said. "They all get their misinformation and support from the head of the octopus."
The citizen associations, FAIR responds, reflect widespread outrage--not a federation effort to provoke the public.
Just last week, Ben Seeley, FAIR's Southern California program director and a longtime immigration gadfly in San Diego, drew warm applause from an Orange County anti-immigration gathering. Another FAIR member, Harold Ezell (former Immigration and Naturalization Service western commissioner, under Nelson's INS stewardship), elicited passions when he implored the mostly passive participants to chant the word "Illegal!"--as in illegal alien.
"It's a matter of law versus lawlessness!" declared Ezell, whose consulting firm specializes in assisting millionaire immigrants obtain green cards.
To participants in such sessions, California's growing ethnic and racial diversity--celebrated by many as a source of strength--is more of a call to arms. For FAIR strategists, who are enthusiastic proponents of assimilation, diversity is a suspect notion.
"I think people are mistaken in taking a rosy view of multiculturalism," said Garrett Hardin, a FAIR board member and noted ecologist. "If they want to know the ultimate result of multiculturalism, look at Yugoslavia. The more we encourage multiculturalism, the more we encourage a conflict and social chaos. It leads to loss of freedom."
Hardin, a co-founder of Zero Population Growth, is an advocate of "lifeboat ethics." Fearing that the nation may soon exceed its "carrying capacity" (a term borrowed from fish and game management), Hardin calls famine relief counterproductive and backs incentives for sterilization. Some consider him a genius, but others call his views reprehensible.
"In the long haul," said Hardin, a professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara, "every nation . . . must take responsibility for taking care of its own people."
His wife, Jane Hardin, sits on the board of Californians for Population Stabilization, a Sacramento group also seeking immigration restrictions.
Critics say Hardin and other FAIR advocates fan the flames of anti-immigrant backlash, but FAIR backers shift the blame elsewhere: to lawmakers who have failed to heed FAIR's urgings that the flow must be halted.
"I think anti-immigrant sentiment is rising in this country today, and I think it's rising because policy-makers didn't do their job," said Roger Conner, a FAIR architect and longtime executive director.
Few people doubt that FAIR has been instrumental--both in the public relations and legislative spheres--in helping to elevate the once-obscure issue of immigration to national prominence.
"They've been successful in shaping the debate," concedes Munoz of the National Council of La Raza.
On Capitol Hill, FAIR representatives have pushed for more border guards, better frontier fencing and an overhaul of the nation's beleaguered asylum program. All are now Clinton Administration policy features. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's plan for a $1 border-crossing fee to finance increased enforcement costs is a longtime FAIR objective, although an aide to the senator said she came up with the idea before any discussions with FAIR officials.
There have also been setbacks. FAIR bitterly fought the amnesty provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which ultimately provided legal status to about 3 million undocumented people, half of them California residents.
However, FAIR was also a force behind that law's other major component: civil and criminal sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants.
In Sacramento, where FAIR also enjoys growing sway, former INS commissioner Nelson lauds his 1993 legislative success: the passage of all four FAIR-backed bills, which will deny driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, prohibit local sanctuary ordinances, ease deportation of prisoners and block government job placement to undocumented residents.
"We were four for four," said Nelson, a tall, avuncular lawyer. "Now, as the public attention has been focused (on immigration), you have the politicians realizing it's an issue that we need to deal with."
Acting on his own, not as FAIR's California representative, Nelson has helped draft an initiative that backers hope to place on next November's ballot. Assailed as Draconian by its critics, the effort would, among other things, require school districts to remove illegal immigrant children from classrooms and turn them in for deportation.
"That's as low as I've heard," Sharry said.
FAIR's agenda seeks to protect U.S. jobs and wages, reduce crime, safeguard the environment, improve education and otherwise preserve what adherents portray as a lifestyle imperiled by new settlers. A persistent FAIR theme is the deleterious impact of immigrants on the U.S. poor and working classes, particularly Latinos and African Americans. Skeptics label this approach an exercise in race and class divisiveness.
But FAIR officials say they speak for working America, adopting populist arguments to buttress their case against immigration. FAIR strategists often focus on big corporations and agribusiness as the bad guys, contending that they line their coffers at the expense of an exploited immigrant work force that drives down wages for citizens.
"It's always struck me that the immigration issue on deep level was a class issue," said Conner, FAIR's first executive director.
But Conner and other FAIR followers amend their class interpretation of immigration with an important caveat: Their class solidarity does not extend beyond borders to include other countries' huddled masses.
"I'm certainly of that school that says that a nation has its first duty to its own poor," said Richard D. Lamm, former Democratic governor of Colorado, who chairs FAIR's national board of advisers.
The advisory board's makeup reflects FAIR's hybrid of left and right, Democrat and Republican. Gracing the letterhead are liberal stalwarts such as ex-Sen. Eugene McCarthy and former New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, along with ex-Los Angeles Councilman Ernani Bernardi.
FAIR has cultivated liberals while publicly distancing itself from extreme conservatives who are part of the burgeoning anti-immigrant movement. From the outset, FAIR's leadership theorized that alliances with the left would defuse charges of racial insensitivity.
"The issues we're touching on here must be broached by liberals," John H. Tanton, FAIR's founder and longtime chairman, warned colleagues in a 1986 internal memorandum. "The conservatives simply cannot do it without tainting the whole subject."
Tanton noted: "This is all obviously dangerous territory."
So dangerous, in fact, that the memo's incendiary contents--disclosed by Arizona newspapers in 1988--continue to tarnish FAIR's reputation and the images of a network of related groups founded by Tanton, a former Sierra Club national committeeman and Zero Population Growth president. Among Tanton's other creations: U.S. English, the controversial English-only advocacy group that has sponsored ballot initiatives and related actions nationwide.
In the memo, Tanton warned of the "Latin onslaught," noting the prospective bolstering of the influence of the Catholic Church. He bemoaned what he said were Latin American traditions of bribery and civic apathy and cited high Latino birth rates.
"Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile?" Tanton asked his confreres. "As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?"
Not meant for publication, Tanton's memo sparked a firestorm of criticism when revealed in the news media.
Linda Chavez, a high-ranking official in the Reagan Administration who characterized the memo as "anti-Hispanic" and "anti-Catholic," resigned her post as president of U.S. English. Walter Cronkite, the former CBS newsman, resigned from a U.S. English advisory board.
Ultimately, Tanton, too, was forced to step down as U.S. English chairman, although he vehemently denied charges of racism.
These days, Tanton, who was chairman of FAIR from 1979 to 1987 and still sits on its board, publishes a journal, the Social Contract, in Michigan. Recently, a headline asked: "What Makes a Nation? How Much Commonality Does It Require? How Much Diversity Can It Tolerate?"
To this day, critics point to the 1986 memo as having decoded FAIR's subtext of racial bigotry.
"I think that FAIR has very cleverly developed a mask of moderation, but in fact there's a hidden agenda, which is to stir up fears about Third World immigration," said James Crawford, a Washington education writer whose 1992 book examined the origins of FAIR and linked movements. "The leaders have espoused in private a whole elaborate theory of 'race suicide'--the idea that the white race is threatened by immigration from the Third World."
FAIR officials defend the memo as a purposely provocative distillation of raw thought. "These were propositions for discussion, not positions that Tanton adhered to," Stein said.
But, in fact, the document does provide a kind of road map of FAIR strategies, notably the importance of garnering liberal support and the danger of alliances with the right.
And even back in 1986, Tanton was contemplating the notion that it was time for an assimilation-boosting pause in U.S. immigration--now one of FAIR's basic goals.
Today, FAIR's annual budget approaches $3 million, from foundation grants, donations and fees from members, almost half of them California residents. Federal tax regulators consider the nonprofit federation an educational organization only nominally involved in lobbying. Contributions are tax-exempt.
Some of FAIR's funding sources have prompted critics to question the group's underlying motives.
The Pioneer Fund, a little-known foundation based in New York City, has bankrolled FAIR with $600,000 since 1988, according to tax returns. Pioneer, founded in 1937 and dedicated to "human race betterment," has supported some extremely inflammatory racial research--including work by William B. Shockley, the late physicist who held that blacks are inherently intellectually inferior to whites.
One of FAIR's earliest financial boosters (and a longtime funder of Tanton's projects), is Cordelia Scaife May, a Pittsburgh-based heiress to the Mellon fortune known for her largess to population-control movements.
The heiress's Laurel Foundation also helped finance U.S. distribution of a French futuristic novel, "The Camp of the Saints," which paints an apocalyptic picture of France overrun by "swarthy hordes" from the Third World. Anti-racists are depicted as traitors who allow the "invasion" to progress until the white race is vanquished.
Although many have assailed the fantasy as blatantly xenophobic and racist, some find the tract prescient.
"Every day, this country looks more like the one described in France in that book," said Garrett Hardin, the FAIR board member. "Now we're seeing these poor people flying in, and coming in boats from China. Things look much closer to that book than they did 10 years ago."
About This Series
Today's article is part of an occasional series, "The Great Divide: Immigration in the 1990s." As debate about immigration grows more heated, The Times examines the significant issues for California and the nation.