Who Supports Trump's Favorite Immigration Think Tank?

The first television ad in Donald Trump's general election campaign, in August 2016, featured an image of “Hillary Clinton’s America” and an ominous warning about “illegal immigrants convicted of committing crimes” while “the system stays rigged against Americans.” The ad also cited a little-known think tank with a neutral-sounding name: the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). 

Since then, as the Trump administration has worked to make good on Trump's campaign promises, CIS has become an important player on immigration policy. It's supplied some of the ideas for Trump policies and defended the administration's actions in public debates. Jon Feere, a former legal policy analyst at CIS was hired as an adviser to Thomas D. Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

This president is no stranger to pulling from unconventional, not to mention controversial, sources, and CIS certainly fits the bill. Its tagline, “low immigration, pro-immigrant,” reflects the organization’s stated attitude that while stricter immigration controls are necessary, immigrants themselves shouldn’t be vilified on the basis of their identity. That’s the line taken by CIS executive director Mark Krikorian, who has served in that role since 1995. But CIS has been often criticized for advancing racist, nativist and far-right views. For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote last fall that CIS "routinely circulates pieces penned by white nationalists, Holocaust deniers, and material from explicitly racist websites." It's also been criticized by other think tanks, including the Cato Institute, for shoddy research aimed at promoting an anti-immigration agenda regardless of the facts.

So who funds this organization?

Over the years, a number of foundations have supported CIS, including the Bradley, Smith Richardson, F.M. Kirby, and William Donner foundations. Yet, as far as we can tell, a single funder really dominates the picture at CIS. 

The Colcom Foundation, established in 1996 by late heiress Cordelia Scaife May (sister of conservative philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife), brands itself as a funder for environmental conservation. To be fair, it does consistently support that cause, especially in its home region in the vicinity of Pittsburgh. But Colcom also sees reducing immigration as a key to protecting America's environment. The argument here is that unchecked immigration leads to overpopulation and then to environmental degradation. Colcom has given very substantial sums to groups like NumbersUSA, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and CIS.

The fact that a conservation funder finances some of the nation’s leading anti-immigration groups points to an awkward rift in the environmental movement between climate- and justice-focused progressives and old-guard conservationists, at least a few of whom seem as intent on protecting the white race as wild places.

While Krikorian and the current staff of CIS may not be avowed nativists, it’s harder to look favorably on John Tanton, the doctor and conservationist who founded CIS, FAIR, NumbersUSA, and the Social Contract Press — an entire network of organizations dedicated to the fight against immigration. Tanton has also openly favored eugenics, and is on record for harboring explicitly nativist views. 

According to Krikorian, Tanton hasn't been involved with CIS for decades. But Tanton was reportedly a close friend of Cordelia Scaife May, and that friendship lives on through the Colcom Foundation. All told, Colcom’s top beneficiaries include every one of Tanton’s anti-immigration groups, including FAIR (over $18 million), NumbersUSA (over $17 million), Tanton’s Social Contract Press (over $10 million), and CIS (over $8 million). It’s hard to avoid the impression that Colcom singlehandedly keeps Tanton’s network going. 

The Scaife connection, by the way, has also ensured a stream of support over the years from the Sarah Scaife, Scaife Family, and Carthage Foundations, though not on Colcom’s level.

At the time of her death, Cordelia May was worth over $800 million. Recently, Colcom’s assets were reportedly over $500 million, guaranteeing a lot of lucre for these anti-immigration groups. 

One note about May: Her dedication to “population control” as a conservationist cause made her hard to pigeonhole ideologically. Case in point: She was a solid supporter of Planned Parenthood.