Dr. John Tanton

Updates here; follow me on Facebook or on Twitter @HMAesq for notifications; on Twitter follow #TantonPapers. Last update: 06/20/2019


As an immigration lawyer and advocate, in the wake of ICE raids, stalled immigration reform, detention of children, denial of due process, ramped up deportations, and targeted travel bans, I am committed to stop what I see as the legalization of xenophobia which will have the effect of creating a permanent and disenfranchised underclass.

There is a purposeful and intentional movement to achieve that nefarious goal, to which there must be a purposeful and intentional response, and to thwart against which there should have been a purposeful and intentional movement.

There have been various anti-immigrant, exclusionary policies pushed over the past 15 years. Behind modern players like Kris Kobach, Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and others in the new administration is the trifecta of anti-immigrant organizations: FAIR, NumbersUSA, and CIS. Like any organization, there have been lots of hands stirring the pot for a very long time. But sometimes, you can find a lynchpin. I believe one such lynchpin behind all three of these organizations is one man: John Tanton.

Dr. Tanton is best described as an environmentalist turned immigration restrictionist, and someone at least sympathetic to white nationalism. The groups he founded and/or nurtured – FAIR, CIS, NumbersUSA, and other ones such as US Inc. and US English have collectively stalled meaningful immigration reform for decades. Kris Kobach is of counsel to the legal arm of FAIR. The former executive director, Julie Kirchner, is now the ombudsman of USCIS. FAIR’s writeups strongly influence immigration policy, as in the case of the administration’s “Declined Detainer Outcome Report.” The list goes on.

These organizations inform US immigration policy, and Dr. Tanton was the grand wizard behind them. Bans, raids, private prisons, deportation as a cure-all, fanning hate of refugees and immigrants? Much of it traceable back to FAIR and, ultimately, Dr. Tanton.


Tanton was a prolific writer, thought leader, and connector. He has been suffering from Parkinson’s and is apparently retired from public life, but his thought lives on.

His papers from 1960 to 2007 were donated to the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library and are currently located in 25 boxes. Boxes 1 – 14 are open without restriction, but boxes 15 – 25 are closed until April 6, 2035. 

The modern version of Tanton’s thought is becoming White House immigration policy. I believed the public interest is served by investigating that connection. That means unsealing boxes 15 – 25.

What’s in the Sealed Tanton Papers? According to the BHL, among other things:

In short, the sealed Tanton papers will shine a light onto the conceptual foundations of the anti-immigrant movement, as well as its strategic plans and key players. It may help us understand the origins of the groups currently informing White House immigration policy, and how the thought evolved from Tanton’s environmental concerns to the policies we’ve seen in 2017, including the Muslim bans, ICE raids, and ramped up enforcement.


On December 16, 2016 I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the University of Michigan. As expected, the University requested additional time. Eventually they responded, asking for a deposit to cover one-half of the estimated FOIA expenses.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations both recognized the importance of transparency here.  The SPLC has been reporting on the Tanton hate networks for decades. 

I sent in the money to the University, but on May 8, 2017 my request was denied. The University took the position that since the records were sealed, they were not “public records” within the meaning of the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

I filed an appeal with the President of the University of Michigan on May 16, 2017. I argued that under binding Michigan Supreme Court precedent, the documents still were public records retained by a public body for an official purpose. The presence of some mysterious arrangement to seal the documents was simply apropos. I sent in a draft lawsuit, indicating my intent to avail of judicial process if the denial was not overturned.

On May 30, 2017, the President denied my appeal. Counsel for the President Liz Barry wrote the sealed papers were restricted due to a valid charitable gift agreement, and failure to abide by that agreement would chill potential future donors from donating key historical papers, undermining the University’s essential function to preserve that history.

Having exhausted all options with the University, on Monday, June 12, 2017 I filed a lawsuit against the University seeking an order compelling production of the Sealed Tanton Papers. The case has been assigned number 17-000170-MZ by the Michigan Court of Claims. The suit was dismissed by the Court of Claims on Nov 20, 2017 and an appeal was filed to the Michigan Court of Appeals. Having been fully briefed, oral arguments were heard at 11 am on August 15, 2018.

On June 20, 2019, the Court of Appeals ruled in my favor, finding that the Court of Claims improperly dismissed the action, and all but finding that the Sealed Tanton Papers are public records under the Michigan FOIA. 

They are public records. A public body like the University cannot insulate records from the Freedom of Information Act simply by private agreement, and that in any case, the public interest on these facts trumps whatever privacy or other interest may suggest against disclosure.

Now, we await the University’s next move: an appeal to Michigan’s Supreme Court, or accept the remand back to the Court of Claims for trial activities.


12/16/2016Initial FOIA RequestFiled with U of M FOIA office.
5/8/2017Denial of Initial FOIAFOIA office says determination that Tanton Papers were not public records made after deposit was rec’d
5/16/2017Appeal of FOIA DenialFiled with Office of President, U of M
5/30/2017Denial of FOIA AppealU of M says private charitable gift agreement takes Tanton Papers out of ambit of FOIA
6/12/2017Lawsuit: Ahmad v. U of MFiled after exhausting all appeals with U of M. Included as exhibits all correspondence to/from U of M FOIA office.
8/10/2017Motion to DismissArgues Tanton Papers are not public records because not “used” or “possessed” by public body until 2035; also privacy exemptions apply.
10/5/2017Response to Motion To DismissArgues official purpose in acquisition of papers triggers FOIA; premature to argue exemptions but public bodies cannot contract their way out of public policy.
11/3/2017Reply to Response to MTDArgues national immigration policy is not a stated purpose of Michigan FOIA; contravenes constitutional authority of Regents of U of M; there is no official function of the Tanton Papers hence, not FOIA-able.
11/20/2017Order Granting Motion to DismissThe Michigan Court of Claims granted the University of Michigan’s motion to dismiss, saying the records are not public. We will appeal.
2/21/2018Opening Brief in Circuit CourtWe engaged Philip Ellison, Esq. of Outside Legal Counsel, a FOIA law firm, and appealed the grant of the Motion to Dismiss to the Michigan Court of Appeals. We argued the Tanton Papers are unquestionably public records, and a private gift agreement does not insulate them from FOIA.
3/18/2018Motion To Expedite Scheduling OrderMr. Ellison requests the Court of Appeals to expedite our case by treating it as a priority.
3/28/2018Order granting Motion to ExpediteThe Court of Appeals agrees to treat this lawsuit as a priority.
3/28/2018University of Michigan’s Response BriefU of M argues the Tanton Papers are not public records because they aren’t possessed for any official function, and besides frustrating the purposes of FOIA, infringes on the University’s constitutional autonomy. 
4/18/2018Reply to U of M’s Response BriefThe dismissal below still assumed facts not in evidence (the donor gift agreement) and even if there wasn’t procedural error, the University’s arguments are without merit.
8/15/2018Oral ArgumentsBoth sides presented oral arguments before the Court of Appeals in Detroit.
6/20/2019Order of Mich. Court of Appeals: Reversed and RemandedCourt of Claims improperly dismissed lawsuit; Plaintiff pled sufficient facts to allege the Tanton Papers were public records subject to FOIA.


Latino Rebels, We’re Suing to Compel Disclosure of the Tanton Papers (Jun 6, 2017)

Ann Arbor News, University of Michigan sued over anti-immigration activist’s records (Jun 20, 2017)

Patriot Not Partisan, Why You Need To Know Dr. John Tanton, Founder Of The Anti-Immigrant Movement (Aug 15, 2017)

Detroit Free Press, University of Michigan blocks release of hot-button records of anti-immigrant leader (Oct 17, 2017)

​Michigan Daily, Bentley Library faces lawsuit over access to anti-immigration activist’s documents (Oct 18, 2017)

El Vocero Hispano, Universidad de Michigan bloquea publicación de documentos controversiales de líder antiinmigrante (Oct 20, 2017)

Splinter News, The Eugenicist Doctor and the Vast Fortune Behind Trump’s Immigration Regime (Jul 5, 2018)

Michigan Radio, Suit seeks anti-immigration documents from UM (Aug 15, 2018)

Detroit News, Lawyer fights UM to see immigration foe’s papers (Aug 15, 2018)

America’s Voice, As Events This Week Prove, Anti-Immigrant Hate Groups Are in Control With the Trump Administration (Aug 15, 2018)

Detroit Free Press, Anti-immigrant leader focus of 10 secret boxes at U-M library (Aug 16, 2018)

Daily Beast, University Fights to Keep Anti-Immigration Leader John Tanton’s Papers Secret (Sep 2, 2018)

Detroit News, Appeals Court Rules Against UM in Bid to Keep Immigration Foe’s Documents Private (Jun 21, 2019)

Detroit Metro Times, Appeal court rules against U-M in case to keep anti-immigration leader’s documents sealed (Jun 22, 2019)

Michigan Daily, Appeal court rules ‘U’ to release anti-immigration documents (Jun 24, 2019)

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