AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A retired ophthalmologist from a small town in Michigan died this week at the age of 85. His name was John Tanton, not somebody many Americans have heard of. But Tanton is, in many ways, the godfather of the modern movement to restrict immigration to the U.S. And joining us now to discuss Tanton's influence is NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So I know that Tanton was somebody that you had a lot to say about in your book on immigration a few years back. Tell us a little more about him.
GJELTEN: He was an interesting guy, Ailsa. He was a - as you say, an eye doctor, saw himself as an environmentalist. This was in the '60s. And back then, the big environmental issue was overpopulation. He got involved in an organization you might have heard of called Zero Population Growth. And that's how he got involved in the immigration debate.
He saw mass immigration as leading to overpopulation in the U.S. and the burdening of the environment. But his environmental allies refused to join him in opposing immigration, so he founded his own organization. It was called the Federation for American Immigration Reform, FAIR. Even today, it's the leading organization in the U.S. backing restriction on immigration.
CHANG: Right, but FAIR is known today as a pretty mainstream conservative group, right? Tanton himself - he became quite controversial. How was that?
GJELTEN: Right. Well, what happened is that Tanton grew increasingly frustrated that his environmental arguments against immigration weren't really making much of a difference, and he then began focusing on cultural issues, this idea that too many immigrants were coming from non-European backgrounds, weakening the country's heritage. We have an interview from 2006 where we get an idea of this view. This was released by a journal he founded called The Social Contract. And here he compared restricting immigration to going on a diet.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN TANTON: We're going to have to cut back on the amount of food we eat. We're going to need to change the type of food we eat in order to come to a different future. In the same way, that's our idea of the reform of immigration now - is that we need to examine how many and who and how we're going to try to enforce the rules.
GJELTEN: And the key there, Ailsa, is he's saying, we'd have to just not cut back on the amount of immigrants but on the type, not just how many immigrants should be allowed in but who. That's where he started to get controversial. It actually led to a break in the movement he founded. After that, Tanton went more in a white nationalist direction, even an extremist in some ways.
CHANG: So what began essentially as just an anti-immigration position turned into an extreme white nationalism position for him. Can you tell us a little more about how that happened?
GJELTEN: Well, for example, he started something he called a Writers' Workshop, and many of the people that he invited actually openly advocated white supremacy. There was, for example, an editorial writer at The Washington Times who came. He lamented what he called the war against the white race. He gave him space in his journal, The Social Contract. And this caused his allies - original allies like in FAIR to get nervous. One guy told me that he used to go to those meetings. He said, I see those people, and I just want to take a shower when I got home. And that became Tanton's legacy.
CHANG: Now, I understand that his death was actually announced by FAIR, the group that he founded, even though FAIR distanced itself from him. What did they have to say about him?
GJELTEN: Well, I guess because he was the founder, the president of the group felt a need to defend him. And he wrote on the website that John Tanton was not a politician. He was a creative intellect. He merely wanted to ensure we had the vital conversations that would allow future generations to judge we acted properly. And we're having those conversations now, aren't we?
CHANG: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
GJELTEN: You bet.
(SOUNDBITE OF LORDE SONG, "LOUVRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.