The Center for Immigration Studies


I had meant to write a post about the odious Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and its leader, Mark Krikorian, shortly after the Trump inauguration (almost one and a half years ago! — I guess time flies when your country is burning to the ground). I never got around to it, but recent news reminded me of CIS:

President Donald Trump has nominated Ronald Mortensen, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration, for a top State Department position overseeing refugees.

Mortensen, who previously worked as a foreign service officer, is a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies think tank, which advocates tighter immigration restrictions in the U.S.

Appointing a member of CIS to oversee refugee admissions is a bit like nominating the CEO of Carl’s Jr to be the Secretary of Labor, or a foreign agent to be your National Security Adviser, or an utter moron to regulate the safety of U.S. nuclear power: it’s wholly in keeping with the Trumpian theme of having foxes guard the henhouse. (Although calling Rick Perry a fox is certainly too generous.)

Evan Osnos at The New Yorker wrote an excellent article about the Trump administration’s assault on the administrative (“deep”) state. He mentions that, much like George W. Bush’s staffing of the Emerald City in Iraq, “the earliest wave [of administrators in the Trump administration] arrived from the Heritage Foundation; subsequent ones came from Charles and David Koch’s network of conservative advocacy groups and from the American Enterprise Institute.” The Center for Immigration Studies, and its partner organization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), has enjoyed similar success. There are four former employees of FAIR and CIS now serving in the White House. CIS has recently testified to Congress 11 times about issues like DACA, “sanctuary cities”, and the border wall, and close to 100 times since Krikorian took over in 1995.

I find CIS fascinating as a case study in how racism and xenophobia are laundered in American politics through the seemingly respectable channels of “non-partisan” think tanks. The raw sludge generated at the CIS gets reprocessed into clickbait articles for Breitbart and The Daily Caller; evidence in Kris Kobach’s court defense of his Kansas laws restricting “voter fraud”; White House policy papers; and even Trump’s tweets and speeches (or, alternatively, Fox and Friends’ segments that later become Trump tweets).

Miller and his team at the Domestic Policy Council heavily edited several discussion papers outlining policy considerations, according to one of the White House officials. Statistics were cherry-picked. “We’d get them back from D.P.C., and they were eighty-five-per-cent different,” the official said, referring to papers generated by the N.S.C. staff. “D.P.C. would just sit down and write their own paper. They put in a lot of spurious statistics. Things like: refugees are thirty times more likely than the general population to commit a terrorist act.” According to the official, many of the statistics Miller’s team favored came from the Center for Immigration Studies, an influential anti-immigration think tank.

There are two ways to attack the CIS. One is to simply point out that so many of the academic-sounding studies they produce are untrue. Conservative think tanks were constructed to mirror liberal academia; the founder of FAIR and CIS, John Tanton, lamented that the “Immigration Reform Movement is loosing [sic] ground in the Battle of Ideas”. He proposed starting CIS to combat this problem: it would be a think tank, “independent” of FAIR for the sake of “credibility”. FAIR and CIS would be nominally separate but would in practice work in concert: CIS producing the research that the more activist-minded FAIR would use to engender political action. Unsurprisingly, though, the needs of ideology and politics and the requirements of sober-minded research butted heads. Here are a couple of examples.

Harvard Professor George Borjas, known as the leading intellectual light on the pro-restriction side of the immigration debate, posted an article to the CIS website purporting to show that the “surplus of $35 billion” generated by immigration (legal and illegal) “comes from reducing the wages of natives in competition with immigrants by an estimated $402 billion a year, while increasing profits or the incomes of users of immigrants by an estimated $437 billion.” In other words, according to Borjas, the only people benefiting economically from immigration are the immigrants themselves.

(Borjas and Jeff Sessions, by the way, have a mutually admiring relationship: “In January 2015, as the Trump campaign was revving up, Sessions released a booklet that he called an “Immigration Handbook for the New Republican Majority” — featuring Borjas’ $402 billion-a-year wage loss estimate…On his blog, post-election, Borjas expressed confidence in Sessions’ knowledge about immigration and referred to him as a “Southern gentleman.””)

The details are gory, but suffice it to say that the data and models that Borjas used to support his claim (such as that from the “Mariel boatlift” incident) are highly tendentious, if not outright wrong. Borjas went hunting for an effect, and he tortured the data until he found one. If proving your conclusion requires tossing more than 90% of the data, you’re doing it wrong.

CIS has promulgated similar nonsense about American elections being tainted by non-citizens voting, the use of the diversity lottery as a backdoor for terrorists, the overuse of welfare by immigrants, and so on. Alex Nowraseth at the Cato Institute claims he’s “convinced that [Krikorian is] wrong about all the facts and issues.” In fact, there’s a whole website where you can find fact check-style rebuttals of CIS talking points.

Fact-based critiques of CIS are worthwhile, but I don’t find them terribly effective. NPR ran a segment on CIS in which quotes from Krikorian and his interlocutors were pitted against one another. The segment closed with this soundbite:

KRIKORIAN: In a sense, our mission is to make immigration skepticism intellectually respectable.

ROSE: It’s a mission that has put Mark Krikorian in the crosshairs. But it’s also one that’s finally earned him an audience in the Trump administration.

This is typical centrist journalism: it’s easier to report on who is effective rather than who is right, and easier to say that someone has gained detractors than saying that that person deserves them. I do sympathize with NPR, though: it’s hard work to wade through the literature to figure out whether the CIS pseudo-academic studies are indeed bullshit. It’s even harder to communicate the findings of that literature review in a 2 minute segment. So I’m not surprised that NPR would rather report on the politics than on the science. And, relatedly, I think this is the failing of “explain the news” sites like Vox or FiveThirtyEight: most people don’t have the patience, appetite, or aptitude for this kind of debate. This is why the right-wing think tank strategy is so effective — even an ersatz research shop like CIS can muddy the waters enough to transform a clear-cut research debate into another partisan food-fight.

So I think it’s far more effective, and insightful, to attack CIS from another angle. The people who founded CIS are racists, the people who work there are racists, the people who they associate with are racists, and the people who use their “research” are racists. Hidden not too far below the surface layer of academic studies and policy papers is a deep-seated fear of what immigration will do to America and “Western Civilization”. CIS is an attempt to put an intellectual gloss on that anxiety, to manifest a super-ego that hides a dark and unsightly id. It is not as if CIS was founded by unbiased scholars who decided to research immigration and, after careful contemplation, decided on the pro-restriction position. It’s the opposite — there is money to be mined in fear of immigrants, and everything that followed was a rationalization.

Southern Poverty Law Center has the complete takedown, but I’ll try to summarize the highlights. Let’s start with John Tanton, the founder.

The papers in the Bentley Library show that Tanton has for decades been at the heart of the white nationalist scene. He has corresponded with Holocaust deniers, former Klan lawyers and the leading white nationalist thinkers of the era. He introduced key FAIR leaders to the president of the Pioneer Fund, a white supremacist group set up to encourage “race betterment,” at a 1997 meeting at a private club. He wrote a major funder to encourage her to read the work of a radical anti-Semitic professor — to “give you a new understanding of the Jewish outlook on life” — and suggested that the entire FAIR board discuss the professor’s theories on the Jews. He practically worshipped a principal architect of the Immigration Act of 1924 (instituting a national origin quota system and barring Asian immigration), a rabid anti-Semite whose pro-Nazi American Coalition of Patriotic Societies was indicted for sedition in 1942.

As early as 1969, Tanton showed a sharp interest in eugenics, the “science” of breeding a better human race that was utterly discredited by the Nazis, trying to find out if Michigan had laws allowing forced sterilization. His interest stemmed, he wrote in a letter of inquiry that year, from “a local pair of sisters who have nine illegitimate children between them.” Some 30 years later, he was still worrying about “less intelligent” people being allowed children, saying that “modern medicine and social programs are eroding the human gene pool.”

Sounds like quite the guy, huh? Echoes of Tanton’s ideas are heard still today at the CIS. Remember Ronald Mortensen, who was just nominated by Trump to the State Department? He wrote an article in 2013 about how House conservatives were being “targeted by Bloomberg-Soros-Zuckerberg Amnesty Snake Oil Peddlers”. All that dog whistle is missing is three sets of parentheses and a comment about the “Jewish outlook on life”. Or what about the dysgenic concerns about less intelligent people having children? The CIS paid Jason Richwine to write blog posts for their website. As an academic, Richwine authored a thesis about immigrant IQ, explaining

The average IQ of immigrants in the United States is substantially lower than that of the white native population, and the difference is likely to persist over several generations. The consequences are a lack of socioeconomic assimilation among low-IQ immigrant groups, more underclass behavior, less social trust, and an increase in the proportion of unskilled workers in the American labor market.

(Incidentally, George Borjas was on Richwine’s thesis committee.)

The CIS’s ties to white supremacists have also persisted through the years. The white supremacist Jared Taylor is a huge fan of CIS’s work, and CIS regularly circulates articles from VDare, a white supremacist website (named after the first white child, Virginia Dare, born in the Americas). In the image at the head of this post, Mark Krikorian is pictured with Kyle Bristow, a white nationalist (and friend of Richard Spencer) who runs the Michigan State University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). MSU-YAF asked Krikorian to speak to them, as part of “the same speakers series that included Nick Griffin, a Holocaust denier who heads the extremist British National Party, and Jared Taylor (whose speech was later cancelled)”

The concerns of Tanton, Krikorian, and the rest of the CIS fellows are not novel. They are the core fears of racists everywhere: of being replaced by the other, and of seeing white supremacy and “Western civilization” collapse. Tanton spoke of the Declaration of Independence being a “bond of blood and ethnicity”. He decried the prospect of “mass migration” replacing the culture of California with that of “Latin America”…“The situation then is that the people who have been the carriers of Western Civilization are well on the way toward resigning their commission to carry the culture into the future”.

To preserve a culture under attack from the black and brown hordes is also the guiding principle of the Trump administration. It explains why Trump hired Steve Bannon, who thrilled to “The Camp of the Saints”, the rancid novel about Indian refugees who eat feces, rape white women, and destroy French society. It explains why Stephen Miller, who once explained to a high school classmate that “I can’t be your friend anymore because you are Latino”, has acquired such a prominent role in the administration. And it explains stories like this:

Trump reminded [Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner that] the crowds loved his rhetoric on immigrants along the campaign trail. Acting as if he were at a rally, he recited a few made-up Hispanic names and described potential crimes they could have committed, such as rape or murder. Then, he said, the crowds would roar when the criminals were thrown out of the country — as they did when he highlighted crimes by illegal immigrants at his rallies, according to a person present for the exchange and another briefed on it later. Miller and Kushner laughed.

Let it never be said that the right wing lacks a sense of humor. Even Mark Krikorian once joked about how “Haiti’s so screwed up because it wasn’t colonized long enough” (his emphasis).

They were, and still are, fools: the people who believed that Trump was only concerned about illegal immigration, or only about criminal immigrants, like MS-13. All of the exegetical parsing of Trump’s statements to give him the benefit of the doubt elides this simple fact: you judge a man by the company he keeps. What does it say about Krikorian that that company is Bristow and Tanton, and what does it say about Trump that that company is Krikorian?


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