English-first backer tied to alleged hate groups

Michigan financier of Metro effort says claims are off-base

Tennessean/January 18, 2009

The man who founded the Virginia nonprofit paying for the push to make English Nashville's official language also is behind several organizations that have been labeled hate groups.

Dr. John H. Tanton, a retired eye surgeon, started both ProEnglish and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

The Southern Poverty Law Center identified FAIR as a hate group last winter based on its acceptance of $1.2 million from a white supremacist organization, employees' ties to other such groups and a history of "anti-Latino and anti-Catholic attitudes."

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a Montgomery, Ala.-based civil rights group that monitors extremist activity. It took a second look at FAIR in 2007 after learning that a senior official of the federation met with leaders of a Belgian political party known for its racist views, said Mark Potok, director of the law center's Intelligence Project.

"It was fairly shocking that they would have that meeting," Potok said Monday.

ProEnglish has given $19,000 and legal advice to Nashville English First, which hopes to force a countywide vote on a proposal to limit all Metro Nashville government business, publications and meetings to English, with no exceptions for health or safety.

Nashville English First has spent about $20,000, mostly to print and mail petition postcards to Metro voters.

ProEnglish's executive director, K.C. McAlpin, said it's the Southern Poverty Law Center that's spreading hate - and almost exclusively going after right-wing groups.

He said the organization has "run out of room" to go after the Ku Klux Klan, an early target with little strength today, and has no real criteria for identifying hate groups.

"Being called a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center is like being called ugly by a frog," McAlpin said from ProEnglish's offices in Arlington, Va. "They've broadened their scope to include any group that advocates for responsible immigration reform."

In a 2002 report, the law center identified three other organizations funded and/or founded by Tanton as hate groups.

It has never characterized ProEnglish in that way.

Tanton, who lives in Michigan, said the law center was "way off base."

"That's something they cook up with their fevered imaginations," he said in a phone interview. "I would hope people wouldn't give it much credence."

He said his agenda is to end illegal immigration "to the extent it's possible" and reduce legal immigration to levels consistent with the nation's resources.

Metro Councilman Eric Crafton, who is leading the "English-only" campaign here, did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday. 'The Latin onslaught'

In 1986, Tanton wrote a memo to "colleagues who met at retreats to discuss immigration," according to "The Puppeteer," the law center's 2002 article on Tanton. The memo, leaked to The Arizona Republic newspaper in 1988, was full of questions and statements about "the non-economic consequences of immigration to California, and by extension, to the rest of the United States," in Tanton's words.

Tanton asked, among other things, "Will Latin American migrants bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe), the lack of involvement in public affairs, etc.?" and "Will Blacks be able to improve (or even maintain) their position in the face of the Latin onslaught?"

Gregg Ramos, a Nashville attorney who is working to defeat the official-English plan, said Tanton's memo was repulsive.

"We shouldn't let people like John Tanton and his hate mongers come into Tennessee and dictate how we're going to treat people," said Ramos, a first-generation American of Mexican heritage.

Ramos also contended that Crafton didn't want to reveal the source of Nashville English First's funding until after it submitted its voter petition last week because "he didn't want everybody to know he was taking money from these hate groups."

"It's all coming into focus," Ramos said. "It all makes sense now."

McAlpin said ProEnglish, rather than trying to make life more difficult for immigrants, wants to give the public "a much better image of immigrants in general" by requiring them to do business with the government in English.

"It's very plain common sense," he said.

McAlpin said Tanton, who is in his 70s, "helped find sources of funding" to start ProEnglish 15 years ago.

But the organization now gets the roughly $1 million it spends each year from about 50,000 donors, with foundations giving 15 percent to 20 percent of the money and "smaller donors" providing the rest.

Tanton, who is on the boards of both ProEnglish and FAIR, said he and his wife have put "a fair amount" of their own money into the organizations, but he's also raised money.

ProEnglish is the largest unit of his organization, U.S. Inc., which has a $2 million annual budget.

FAIR is a separate nonprofit organization.

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