Yesterday’s New York Times featured an in-depth story about a little-known but powerful man: John Tanton—a Michigan ophthalmologist and architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement. The story, entitled “The Anti-Immigration Crusader,” describes how Tanton’s activist ideology evolved over time, from an environmentalist’s color-blind concern with “over-population,” to a white nationalist’s worry over the growing number of non-white immigrants in the United States. The story also details Tanton’s pivotal role in creating three organizations that today are the most prominent anti-immigrant groups in the country: the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and NumbersUSA.

Given the xenophobic world view of the man who created them, it should come as no surprise that none of these groups produces intellectually honest research about immigration. However, the lack of credibility from which FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA suffer does not stem solely from their unsavory origins. It also stems from the deeply flawed reports and studies they release. For instance:

  • In July of last year, FAIR released The Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration on United States Taxpayers, a report which relies upon empirically baseless assumptions to inflate its estimate of the costs which unauthorized immigrants impose on federal, state, and local governments. As one example, FAIR assumes that all children of unauthorized immigrants are low-income, and that they all attend low-income schools—and therefore that they are responsible for nearly 10 percent of Title I funding aimed at assisting schools to improve the academic performance of children from poor families.  As another example, FAIR acknowledges that “only anecdotal information is available” about Medicaid fraud by unauthorized immigrants, yet inexplicably assumes that the number of unauthorized immigrants who fraudulently use Medicaid is equal to the number who seek emergency medical treatment. More generally, much of what FAIR counts as the cost of unauthorized immigration is actually the cost of education and healthcare for U.S.-citizen children who will go on to become U.S. taxpayers.
  • In June of last year, CIS released A State Transformed: Immigration and the New California. This report claims that, due to immigration, “by 2008 California had the least-educated labor force in the nation.” The report grossly mischaracterizes the educational profile of the California labor force by focusing exclusively on a single educational category: those without a high-school diploma. A more thorough analysis of 2008 Census data reveals that California’s labor force is also rich in highly educated workers. In fact, California ranks 12th in the nation in the share of workers who have a graduate degree—and 19th in the share with a bachelor’s degree. Moreover, 31 percent of California workers with a graduate degree are immigrants, which is a higher share than any other state.
  • For NumbersUSA, immigration to the United States is always about arithmetic: immigration increases the U.S. population, and more people presumably means more pollution, more urban sprawl, more competition for jobs, and higher taxes for Americans who must shoulder the costs of “over-population.” However, the facts do not support this simplistic world view. For instance, the United States produces 70 percent more greenhouse gases than the nations of the European Union (EU)-15, even though it is home to 23 percent fewer people. In other words, the EU-15 countries manage to produce less pollution with more people while maintaining a standard of living comparable to that of the United States. This illustrates a basic truth which NumbersUSA can not grasp: a few people can pollute a lot, or a lot of people can pollute a little, depending on the systems of production and consumption within a society. The problem is less about how many people are in the United States, and more about how the United States produces and consumes.

FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA sprang from the same tainted soil. Of course, many years have passed since John Tanton created them, and all three have sought to distance themselves somewhat from their founder. But it is clear from their one-sided studies and reports, from their misleading data and distorted analysis, that they still share something in common with Tanton: they blame immigrants for just about every social and economic problem to afflict the United States.

Photo by Gerg1967.