Posted on August 15, 2019

Why a Banking Heiress Spent Her Fortune on Keeping Immigrants Out

Nicholas Kulish and Mike McIntire, New York Times, August 14, 2019


But Cordelia Scaife May eventually found her life’s purpose: curbing what she perceived as the lethal threat of overpopulation by trying to shut America’s doors to immigrants.

She believed that the United States was “being invaded on all fronts” by foreigners, who “breed like hamsters” and exhaust natural resources. She thought that the border with Mexico should be sealed and that abortions on demand would contain the swelling masses in developing countries.

An heiress to the Mellon banking and industrial fortune with a half-billion dollars at her disposal, Mrs. May helped create what would become the modern anti-immigration movement. She bankrolled the founding and operation of the nation’s three largest restrictionist groups — the Federation for American Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies — as well as dozens of smaller ones, including some that have promulgated white nationalist views.

Today, 14 years after Mrs. May’s death, her money remains the lifeblood of the movement, through her Colcom Foundation. It has poured $180 million into a network of groups that spent decades agitating for policies now pursued by President Trump: militarizing the border, capping legal immigration, prioritizing skills over family ties for entry and reducing access to public benefits for migrants, as in the new rule issued just this week by the administration.

{snip} Though their methods radically diverged, Mrs. May and the killer in the recent mass shooting in El Paso applied the same language, both warning of an immigrant “invasion,” an idea also promoted by Mr. Trump.

In many ways, the Trump presidency is the culmination of Mrs. May’s vision for strictly limiting immigration. Groups that she funded shared policy proposals with Mr. Trump’s campaign, sent key staff members to join his administration and have close ties to Stephen Miller, the architect of his immigration agenda to upend practices adopted by his Democratic and Republican predecessors.


{snip} Mrs. May’s unpublished writings reveal her evolution from an environmental-minded Theodore Roosevelt Republican — in 1972 she was the nation’s largest single donor to mainstream congressional candidates — to an ardent nativist. Her ideological transformation presaged the Republican Party’s own shift from blue-blooded, traditional conservatism toward hard-right populism.

Chatty, handwritten notes to John D. Rockefeller III, the philanthropist Helen Clay Frick and the head of the National Audubon Society about luncheons and overseas trips gradually gave way over the years to darker exchanges with fringe figures who believed that black people were less intelligent than white people, Latino immigrants were criminals and white Americans were being displaced.

But Mrs. May disputed the notion that she was racist, writing to a grant recipient in November 1994, “Can we not put imaginary paper bags over the immigrants’ heads, see them as colorless consumers, and count only their deleterious numbers?”


“We occupied the space before anybody, and the people who helped found the organization and fund the organization, including Mrs. May, were people of enormous foresight and wisdom,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, who knew Mrs. May. {snip}

The groups have wasted little time seizing the moment since Donald Trump came to the White House. As Mr. Stein’s organization, known as FAIR, put it in a federal tax filing last year, Mr. Trump’s election presented “a unique opportunity” to enact its longstanding agenda of “building the wall, ending chain migration, rolling back dangerous sanctuary policies, eliminating the visa lottery” and more.

Nowhere in the document is the name of its largest benefactor ever mentioned.

“Without Cordy May, there’s no FAIR,” said Roger Conner, the organization’s first executive director. “There was no money without her.”

Two Passions Converge


But it was Margaret Sanger, the famous and, in some circles, scandalous founder of Planned Parenthood, who provided the sense of direction Mrs. May had craved. Mrs. Sanger was a close friend of her grandmother. Mrs. May acknowledged that it was not the birth control pioneer’s “works or ideals” that initially appealed to her but the fact that she had been jailed for her activities.


Her twin passions, protecting natural habitats and helping women prevent unplanned pregnancies, merged over time into a single goal of preserving the environment by discouraging offspring altogether. “The unwanted child is not the problem,” she would later write, “but, rather, the wanted one that society, for diverse cultural reasons, demands.”


Sealed Borders and Sterilization


By the end of the year, after more than two decades working with Planned Parenthood, she had resigned from the group. Two years later, her top aide delivered a stern message to Mr. Zeidenstein, the new president of the Population Council: Family planning and famine relief were a waste of money. Instead, “the U.S. should seal its border” with Mexico. According to a memo by Mr. Zeidenstein, Mrs. May’s views were becoming so radicalized that “one got the impression” she favored compulsory sterilization to limit birthrates in developing countries.


Buried in the document was a telling reference. “Immigration,” the statement said, “should also be brought into balance with emigration immediately.”

Courting Mrs. May

The Environmental Fund pushed mainstream concerns about overpopulation to the fringe and stoked opposition to immigration. Virginia Abernethy, a self-described “ethnic separatist” who became involved in the group, now called Population-Environment Balance, said in an interview that Mrs. May was “the first person who comes to mind” of those who pushed the population-control movement to oppose immigration.


Through her work with the fund, the heiress struck up a close friendship with Garrett Hardin, a microbiologist and ecologist who argued that the modern welfare state encouraged overpopulation and ecological depletion. When Mrs. May sent him news clippings about riots in Los Angeles, Mr. Hardin responded that the media was finally seeing that “maybe the blacks are less than saintly” and lamented “the predominant Latinity of apprehended criminals” where he lived in California.

“The hope of the future,” he said, “lies in the intelligent practice of discrimination.”

She also met John Tanton, a charismatic eye doctor and environmentalist from Michigan, who would leverage Mrs. May’s financial resources to propel the budding anti-immigration movement forward.

With the square-jawed good looks of a soap opera M.D., Dr. Tanton, who died last month at 85, worked with Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club and was the national president of Zero Population Growth in the 1970s. As the Baby Boom ebbed, he turned his attention to curbing immigration.

In 1978, immigration surged: The Border Patrol apprehended 863,000 unauthorized immigrants, the most in over two decades. {snip

That November, Dr. Tanton wrote a nine-page proposal for funding from Mrs. May to start a group called the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR.


FAIR’s early policy goals, some reflected decades later in proposals pursued by the Trump administration, called for not only an end to illegal immigration, but also a sharp reduction in legal migration. {snip}

Dr. Tanton redoubled his attention to Mrs. May with flowery letters quoting Shakespeare, research into birds she was curious about and recommendations for a game ranch in Kenya. He invited her to a nature preserve in Michigan.


The Tanton-May Network

Mrs. May faced criticism even from within her family for the groups she supported. A young cousin asked whether her causes weren’t discriminatory, racist or, as Mrs. May recalled in a letter, “the one that really puts my teeth on edge … ‘elitist.’”

She produced a five-page typed response, rife with comments about Filipinos “pouring” into Hawaii and “Orientals and Indians” sneaking across “long stretches of unmanned border” with Canada.

She compared medical science’s success in reducing infant mortality rates to veterinarians prolonging the lives “of useless cattle.” Birthrates had dropped in a few areas, she noted, and millions died of starvation every year, but population growth rates continued to climb. “Even wars no longer make much dent; during 11 years of conflict, both North and South Vietnam showed a net increase in population,” she wrote.

Legal and illegal immigration led to overpopulation, she said, “the root cause of unemployment, inflation, urban sprawl, highway (and skyway) congestion, shortages of all sorts (not the least of which is energy), vanishing farmland, environmental deterioration and civil unrest.”

Mrs. May’s Laurel Foundation gave $5,000 to the Institute for Western Values to distribute a translation of the French dystopian novel “The Camp of the Saints” in the United States. The book, about an invasion of poor immigrants overwhelming Europe, is an essential text in white-nationalist circles and has often been cited by the former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. A subsequent English edition was published by the Social Contract Press, which was founded by Dr. Tanton and funded by Mrs. May’s foundation.


Internal FAIR documents show that her advisers played just such an active role in the development of Dr. Tanton’s growing network of groups. Mrs. May’s longtime adviser Gregory Curtis advocated splitting off FAIR’s research component, which became the Center for Immigration Studies in 1986. Dr. Tanton also broke off FAIR’s litigation arm, and continued founding or fostering new groups.


The sheer number of groups nurtured with Mrs. May’s money — dozens over four decades — played an important role in the success of the anti-immigration movement by giving it the appearance of broad-based support. Groups would send representatives to appear before Congress, talk to journalists and provide briefs in lawsuits, without disclosing their common origins and funding.

When Dr. Tanton {snip} decided in the 1980s to host a gathering of a brain trust to strengthen the intellectual underpinnings of the movement, Mrs. May committed $15,000 a year and the use of her Gulfstream jet.

Among those who attended over the years were Richard Lamm, then governor of Colorado, who co-wrote a book called “The Immigration Time Bomb,” and Jared Taylor, a white nationalist who has argued that black people are less intelligent than other races.

Charges of consorting with racists helped push Dr. Tanton to the fringe of acceptable debate, after a private memo he wrote warning of a “Latin onslaught” became public. Dr. Tanton fell further out of favor when it emerged that FAIR had secretly accepted more than $1 million from the Pioneer Fund, a group that embraced eugenics.

But Mrs. May remained loyal. “John became the one who would carry her legacy forward the way a son or a daughter would,” said Mr. Conner, the former executive director of FAIR, who has been critical of the turn the group took. {snip}

An Enduring and Vital Influence


But environmental groups were “doomed to failure,” she wrote in her nonprofit application to the I.R.S., until they recognized “that the degradation of our natural world results ultimately from the press of human numbers.” In addition to stricter immigration, she supported “the study of human intelligence as it relates to schools and the workplace” and “research in the area of human differences,” she explained, echoing the language of the eugenics movement.

According to tax documents, Colcom has funded not only FAIR and other large organizations Mrs. May helped create, but also lesser-known ones like the American Immigration Control Foundation, which has likened immigration to a “military conquest” with the effect of “substantially replacing the native population”; the International Services Assistance Fund, whose focus is promoting chemical sterilization of women around the world; and VDare, a website that regularly publishes white nationalists and whose name is derived from Virginia Dare, the first child of English settlers born in the New World.


One of them was NumbersUSA, today the largest grass-roots organization in the country advocating reduced immigration. Its greatest success was helping to derail comprehensive immigration reform under President George W. Bush, by mobilizing supporters to flood their representatives with calls and faxes.


{snip} The Center for Immigration Studies sued the Southern Poverty Law Center for designating it a hate group, a label the law center has also applied to FAIR.

The nation’s failure to stop the Sept. 11 hijackers presented the anti-immigration groups with a powerful opportunity to link migration and security, driving a militarization of the border that continues to this day. From the rise of the Minutemen to the start of the Tea Party to the Trump presidency, the Tanton-May network has harnessed each surge of anti-immigration sentiment.


Though her money and activism seeded the political landscape for Mr. Trump’s nativist policies — he argues that “the country is full,” claims Mexicans are “dirty” and “dangerous” and immigrants are stealing jobs — the heiress would not see the Queens real estate heir ascend to the presidency. Mrs. May, who had pancreatic cancer, died at her home in 2005, at age 76. Her death was ruled a suicide by asphyxiation.


In all, since Mrs. May’s death, the anti-immigration groups have received $180 million. The market value of Colcom’s assets is $500 million, more than she bequeathed it in the first place.

Thanks to her vast inherited fortune, Mrs. May’s ideas, and causes, survive her.