Anti-Immigration Org Tied to Steve King Sues Over Hate Group Designation

The Center for Immigration Studies was founded by white nationalist John Tanton, who also launched an English-only organization supported by King and whose wife's political action committee has given nearly $14,000 to the congressman's federal campaigns

The Center for Immigration Studies, a far-right think tank with ties to white nationalists and Iowa Congressman Steve King, on Wednesday filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks extremism in America, because it has labeled CIS a “hate group.”

CIS was founded in 1985 by John Tanton, a retired ophthalmologist long associated with white nationalists and others on the far-right fringes. The group is part of a network of anti-immigration organizations that he began launching in 1979, starting with the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Another arm of this is the US Immigration Reform PAC, run by his wife Mary Lou Tanton, which has contributed $13,687 to King since he first ran for Congress in 2002 and most recently with a $1,000 donation in 2018. John Tanton has also been centrally involved in organizations devoted to passing laws making English the only official language used in government operations — a cause that King took on in 1996 as a key plank of his first political campaign, a successful bid for the state Senate.

The lawsuit (read it in full here) claims that CIS’s inclusion on the SPLC’s list of hate groups violates the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, more commonly referred to as RICO. The act was passed by Congress and signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970 to help facilitate prosecutions of the Mafia and other criminal syndicates, but today is more often used in suits against businesses accused of spreading false statements. Filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, the complaint specifically argues that by including CIS on the list, the SPLC has committed wire fraud that’s cost the group at least $10,000.

“SPLC and its leaders have every right to oppose our work on immigration, but they do not have the right to label us a hate group and suggest we are racists,” Mark Krikorian, the current director of CIS, said in a statement Wednesday. “The Center for Immigration Studies is fighting back against the SPLC smear campaign and its attempt to stifle debate through intimidation and name-calling.”

The suit has little chance of actually succeeding. “There are pretty big issues with this complaint,” Jeffrey E. Grell, a lawyer focused on racketeering cases, told the Daily Beast. “This basically all hinges on them being called a hate group by the SPLC … but an opinion isn’t fraudulent.”

Beyond that, the group’s claim that it isn’t a hate group doesn’t have much merit, as the SPLC has extensively documented. It officially deemed CIS a hate group in an annual list published in February 2017, citing 2,012 times the organization “circulated white nationalist content,” including articles from anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers, and VDARE, a website founded by white nationalist Peter Brimelow.

At the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference, Brimelow and Steve King were members of a panel titled “The Failure of Multiculturalism: How the pursuit of diversity is weakening the American identity.” King praised Brimelow during the panel discussion, telling him he’d read all of his books, which include the notorious Alien Nation. Published in 1995, a year before King was first elected to political office, the book argues that politically correct policies were leading to an “unprecedented demographic mutation” caused by immigrants refusing to assimilate into American culture.

During the panel, King also praised Brimelow for how he “eloquently wrote about the balkanization of America,” a phrase popular among white supremacists that warns of the danger of societal fragmentation supposedly caused by immigration. Afterward, King scoffed at a question from BuzzFeed reporter Rosie Gray, who noted that the SPLC considered Brimelow a white nationalist, and claimed that despite his earlier statement, he wasn’t familiar with all of the author’s work.

The CPAC panel was hosted by ProEnglish, another organization connected to CIS founder John Tanton. Tanton founded ProEnglish in 1994, initially calling it English Language Advocates, after he resigned from a similar organization called US English in 1988 over memos he’d penned disparaging Latinos and other immigrants in derogatory terms.

As the Informer has previously written, King embraced the pro-English cause during his first political campaign for the state Senate in 1996:

In early October, a month out from Election Day, then-Gov. Terry Branstad hosted a fundraiser for him at Yellow Smoke Park a mile east of Denison off Highway 30. “I was running through my topics and I said, ‘And I believe English should be the official language of the state of Iowa.’ And it just brought the house down,” King later recalled in an interview with Talking Points Memo, describing the moment he took up the cause of the English-only movement. “There was this huge applause. I knew how strongly I believed in it. But I didn’t know how strongly they believed in it.”

In 2016, King did an interview with ProEnglish (also see the video at the top of this article) in which he repeated the story about his embrace of the group’s movement. “I realized that I had touched a nerve with something I’d believed for a long time,” he recalled. “But there was a newspaper reporter, an editorial writer, sitting in the back of the room, and he decided to write a critical article about me the next day. You know how it goes: racist, bigot, xenophobe — all these names.

“So then I had to defend myself, and twice a week they would write an attack on me, and I would always respond and defend myself. I knew that when I got to the state Senate I needed to carry that bill and establish it for the state of Iowa. It took six years to establish English as the official language of Iowa, and now there are 31 states that have it.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.