Fortress Mentality: Which Funders Are Working Against Immigration?

photo:  Sherry V Smith/shutterstock

photo:  Sherry V Smith/shutterstock

The Trump administration’s actions against immigrants and refugees might appear chaotic and impulsive, but over the past eight months they’ve had real impact. From January through July, arrests of undocumented immigrants without criminal histories increased by 200 percent. DACA is in limbo, and the travel ban presses on against a torrent of judicial opposition. 

We’ve been covering the funders who’ve rushed to to defend DACA’s Dreamers and back legal action to protect immigrants and refugees. But what about the other side? Despite delays on Trump’s border wall and his back-and-forth rhetoric on the Dreamers, these are heady times for those who oppose newcomers to this country, or at least the “wrong kinds” of newcomers.  

In office as on the campaign trail, Trump has been more than willing to engage with groups like the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) for ideas on implementing hard-line immigration policies. The president’s bully pulpit has corroborated the stances of other right-wing anti-immigrant groups like Numbers USA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). But who’s funding all these groups?

It’s hard to downplay the Colcom Foundation’s role. Established in the mid-1990s by Cordelia Scaife May, sister of conservative philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife, Colcom has given tens of millions to a whole network of anti-immigration groups. Its assets stand at around $500 million. Among its grantees are CIS, Numbers USA, FAIR, the Social Contract Press, American Border Patrol, the American Immigration Control Foundation, the Immigration Reform Law Institute and Californians for Population Stabilization. During the 2016 election year, Colcom’s support for FAIR soared. 

“Network” might be the operative word, here. A fair few of the top anti-immigration organizations and think tanks in America—including CIS, FAIR, Numbers USA, and the Social Contract Press—were founded or governed by John Tanton, a figure whose controversial views include support for eugenics and the need to defend a “European-American majority” in the United States. Tanton was a close personal friend of Cordelia Scaife May, who passed away in 2005.


Colcom looms large in the world of anti-immigrant sentiment, but there are other funders at work. While funders like the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Scaife Family Foundation engage in a broad range of conservative grantmaking, the connection through Cordelia Scaife May has ensured a stream of funding to groups like CIS, Numbers USA and FAIR, as well as ProEnglish, a self-explanatory advocacy group that Tanton also chaired for a time. 

At lower levels than Colcom, a number of other funders have also channeled money to the right-wing anti-immigrant cause. They include the Carthage Foundation, which has supported CIS and FAIR, the Kirby Foundation, a ProEnglish donor, and the Robert Wilson Charitable Trust, which has given substantial amounts to FAIR. Another low-key supporter is the Sidney A. Swensrud Foundation, based on the fortune of the late president and chairman of the Gulf Oil Corporation. Alongside John Tanton, Swensrud founded FAIR in 1979. Like the Robert Wilson Charitable Trust, Swensrud mainly supports FAIR, with some additional grants going to ProEnglish and the Immigration Reform Law Institute. 

At the same time, keep in mind that many of these groups also rely on lots of small donations. During the later Obama years, anti-immigrant sentiment became a prominent feature of the Tea Party populist right, and with grassroots organizing comes the capacity for better fundraising. 

For the affluent nativist, DonorsTrust can be a useful vehicle to fund the anti-immigrant cause without making waves. Over the years, the donor-advised fund has dispensed resources to most of the above groups, notably to CIS, Numbers USA, American Border Patrol and the Immigration Reform Law Institute. It's impossible to identify the donors behind these gifts, since donor-advised funds are a great giving vehicle for anyone who wants to give anonymously, including to controversial causes. 

Most of the anti-immigrant organizations receiving funding have been labeled as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And while open racism hasn’t usually been part of their modus operandi (a CIS tagline is “low immigration, pro-immigrant”), Tanton’s loose-knit “network” sits uncomfortably close to the white nationalist movement and the alt right. One example is Colcom’s support for the VDare Foundation, whose anti-immigration website is associated with white nationalism and the need to “defend white American culture.” 

A look at these funders reveals a few more interesting points. For one thing, “population control” was one of their initial priorities, and both Cordelia Scaife May and Sidney A. Swensrud were heavily involved with Planned Parenthood. There’s also a conservationist connection: Colcom brands itself as an environmental funder, and sees controlling population numbers as a means to that end. 

We've commented often on how well conservative funders have played the long-term game, investing over years in building up the strong policy and advocacy infrastructure needed to successfully move an agenda. Immigration stands as another success story in this regard. Disciplined grantmakers and philanthropists who've steadily funded anti-immigration work for years are now seeing a major return on their patient capital. Under Trump, their moment has finally arrived. 

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