Laundering White Nationalism

The Center for Immigration Studies is still giving cover for racist policy

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Last week, as public impeachment hearings opened on Capitol Hill and news broke that a record 69,550 migrant children were held in federal custody in fiscal year 2019, the Trump administration published two proposed rules regarding asylum seekers in the Federal Register. If enacted, according to the immigration newsletter Border/Lines, the rules would not only put aggressive restrictions on how and when those seeking asylum can work while their applications are being processed, they would also add fees for successful asylum applications and raise fees on applications for various benefits programs.

Those who support the Trump immigration regime applauded the proposed rules. In a piece headlined “Why Charging a Fee for Asylum Is Not Wrong,” Dan Cadman explained that it is right and good for asylum seekers to be forced to pay money for their cases to be considered “for the very sound reason that they are overwhelming our borders and our orderly system of immigration processes.” A twenty-nine-year veteran of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (and later Immigration and Customs Enforcement), Cadman is now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank whose tagline is “Low-immigration, Pro-immigrant.” Though they’ve long been a fixture on Fox News, CIS fellows and staff members have been cited more and more frequently in establishment liberal media since Donald Trump took office, providing pseudo-empirical, social scientific-sounding justifications for the  administration’s latest anti-immigration turn. Unsurprisingly, in an analysis of immigration coverage in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today between 2014 and 2018, researchers at Define American and the MIT Center for Civic Media found that “Over 90 percent of the time that CIS was mentioned, it was without contextual information as to the nature of the group or its ties to the Trump administration.” The nature of the group, of course, is that it is an influential (and well-funded) node in a national network of nativist think tanks and nonprofits.

Miller has frequently deployed CIS’s pseudo-scientific research to bolster his ideological proclamations.

CIS is not only gaining traction in the pages of mainstream newspapers. During the 2016 election, the Trump campaign met repeatedly with CIS and cited the organization in at least one speech, campaign ads, and its now-deleted immigration plank. Jon Feere, a former legal policy analyst at CIS who worked on the Trump campaign, is now a senior advisor at ICE, and Ronald Mortensen, a CIS fellow, has been nominated to run the State Department bureau that oversees aid for refugees and stateless people. The Senate didn’t take up Mortensen’s nomination in the last Congress, so the administration had to re-nominate him earlier this year. The think tank also has a powerful ally in the West Wing, as confirmed last week by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the second of a series of investigative articles on White House senior advisor for policy Stephen Miller’s emails to a former editor at Breitbart News. Miller, the emails show, is not only fluent in the discourse of white nationalism, dropping casual Camp of the Saints references and links to VDARE.com and American Renaissance, but has frequently deployed CIS’s pseudo-scientific research to bolster his ideological proclamations.

(An aside: SPLC management should recognize the SPLC Union and begin bargaining without delay.)

At the time the leaked emails were sent, Miller was working for Jeff Sessions. They reveal that Miller pushed Breitbart to cover various CIS “studies” and promoted the work of specific CIS authors. Among them was Jason Richwine, an immigration restrictionist who was forced out of the Heritage Foundation in 2013 after the discovery that his dissertation argued Latinx people have lower IQs than white people. CIS has since seen fit to publish dozens of reports and blog posts by Richwine, who also remains a contributing writer at the National Review. Richwine’s dissertation adviser, George Borjas, is himself a former CIS board member. Miller, the emails show, is a big fan of both; he cited their research as he worked to shape the way the Mercer-funded publication wrote about immigrants and immigration. His entreaties to the Breitbart editor are sprinkled with tactical flattery. “Elites can’t allow the people to see that their condition is not the product of events beyond their control, but the product of policy they foisted onto them,” Miller wrote. “They want people to feel helpless, retreat into their enclaves, and detach. Our job is to show people they can still control their destiny. Knowledge is the first step.” Later that day, he added: “Btw – Bannon was praising your work on this to me again.”

This trove of emails presents a problem for CIS, which has sued the SPLC over its designation of the think tank as a “hate group,” claiming it was an attempt to financially destroy them. (The suit was thrown out by a federal judge.) This is because their function within the wider network of nativist organizations in the United States is to present itself as non-ideological, rigorous, and studied. CIS “avoids making harsh, dispositional attributions about the immigrants themselves, placing the focus instead on protecting popular American institutions, public services, and national goals,” sociologists Joshua Woods, Jason Manning, and Jacob Matz wrote in a 2015 paper on the organization’s “impression management” tactics. Rather than engaging in populist demagoguery, CIS “depersonalizes its claims against immigrants by attributing them not to people or even analysts, but rather to scientific facts,” they argue, suggesting “that ‘data’ lead inevitably to conclusions about the negative effects of immigration.”

When someone takes those conclusions to their logical, violent endpoint, CIS executive director Mark Krikorian only shrugs. “If you have a guy who is going to be angry about immigration, have a killer offering reasons for shooting up immigrants, how could he not use reasons that have already been articulated by legitimate sources?” Krikorian told the Washington Post after the massacre in El Paso. “There’s only so many concerns about immigration,” he said. “Of course he’s going to articulate reasons that already have been spelled out in great detail by immigration skeptics. I don’t know how you avoid that.” (Krikorian did not respond to my interview request.)

What’s more, Woods, Manning, and Matz found, CIS made no mention of the influential nativist John Tanton, without whom it would not exist, in any public-facing documents until a 2009 SPLC report revealed the extent of Tanton’s ties to white nationalists, eugenicists, and anti-Semites. At first, Krikorian and his associates attempted to deflect the issues raised by SPLC, accusing them of waging a smear campaign and infringing upon the think tank’s right to free speech—somewhat ironic, given its recent legal efforts against the Montgomery-based nonprofit. Before long, however, Jerry Kammer, a fellow at CIS, went on to publish a lengthy and contemplative piece about the controversy, admitting that Tanton was “one of several individuals who were instrumental in starting the Center for Immigration Studies.”

Tanton was not merely instrumental; he was integral. In 1985, CIS was spun off from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which Tanton had founded six years prior, “for reasons of independence from the lobbying organization,” as he put it in a 1988 memo. But it was also because his biggest donor, Cordelia Scaife May, and her longtime advisor Gregory Curtis wanted him to. According to another memo, written by one of Tanton’s assistants, May “would prefer to fund the same projects under different organizations rather than giving huge chunks of money to one group.” Between 2005 and 2017, the late May’s Colcom Foundation, to which she left the bulk of her estate, gave CIS $17.6 million.

One of May’s (and later Tanton’s) non-CIS projects was funding the republication and distribution of The Camp of the Saints, a racist French novel that is essentially a dramatization of the “Great Replacement” (or “white genocide”) conspiracy theory. Fascinatingly, a statement from Breitbart News to the SPLC regarding their latest investigation specifically addresses Stephen Miller’s emails to its staff about Camp of the Saints, in language that echoes Kammer’s deflections of nearly ten years prior. “No one in our senior management has read the book, ‘Camp of the Saints,’ but we take The New York Times at their word that it is a ‘cautionary tale,’ and the National Review at theirs that ‘the central issue of the novel is not race but culture and political principles,’” the Breitbart spokesperson said. Compare this to what Kammer wrote in 2009:

Some reviewers called it a “racist rant,” a view echoed by the SPLC’s Heidi Beirich, who cited the sponsorship of the book by Tanton’s Social Contract Press as proof that it is a hate group.

Others thought the book should be discussed, not repressed. They engaged the book’s provocative vision of the future.

“This book will succeed in shocking and challenging the complacent contemporary mind,” said the Library Journal.

London’s Daily Telegraph said the book described “a dilemma with which Europe will have to grapple for a long time to come.”

Writing in Atlantic Monthly as the book was republished in 1995, scholars Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy observed that the book “helps us to call attention to the key global problem of the final years of the 20th century: unbalanced wealth and resources, unbalanced demographic trends, and the relationships between the two.”

The point here is not to dwell on the influence of this particular book, but to draw out the significance of the response from organizations like Breitbart and CIS under pressure—How can a book that The Atlantic wrote about be racist? Also, we haven’t read it. When the far right sidesteps criticism by pointing out that the liberal establishment shares their views (or at least finds them worthy of serious, “objective” analysis), they are not making things up; on the contrary, they are offering us a way to see American politics much more clearly. After all, long before it published David Frum’s “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will,” The Atlantic published Robert Kaplan’s 1994 essay “The Coming Anarchy,” about how global inequality, a despoiled environment, and mass migration would remake the world. The essay triggered a wave of fear and anxiety among lawmakers and bureaucrats, which, as Todd Miller notes in Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, the Clinton administration would channel into further securitization of both U.S. climate and immigration policy.

Casting about for the most damning set of facts, the most searing arrangement of words, we look up and find Miller sneering back at us.

As it turns out, Tanton was also a fan of Kaplan’s work. “Those who hope for a dissolution of national borders should draw us a picture of how such a world might look. My view closely parallels that of Robert Kaplan who sees a breakdown of civil society,” he wrote in The Social Contract, the white nationalist journal he funded, shortly after “The Coming Anarchy” was published. “Without a nation-state to look after their interests, will people transfer their loyalty up to some form of world government or down toward their own racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, tribal, or other group? This latter seems the more likely as we look around the world today.”

While the SPLC’s designation of organizations like CIS as “hate groups” provides a useful political shorthand, it might paradoxically obscure the ideological overlap between these groups and comfortably liberal institutions like The Atlantic or the New York Times, where self-proclaimed experts from CIS may be quoted without context. Just look at the Times’s coverage of the leaked Miller emails—published six days after SPLC’s initial report, it includes a cameo from Mark Krikorian. Stephen Miller’s enduring presence in the White House and his continued influence over immigration policy (particularly with respect to refugees and asylum seekers) is a problem of both language and politics. Casting about for the most damning set of facts, the most searing arrangement of words, we look up and find Miller sneering back at us, the fascist slipping back into the ideological edifice that liberalism has helped to disguise.

Brendan O’Connor is a freelance journalist working on a book about immigration, capitalism, and the far right for Haymarket.

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