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Mark Krikorian, Who Urges Cutting Immigration, Gains Relevance In Trump Era


When it comes to immigration, Donald Trump has taken a harder line than any president in generations. Now voices that were once on the fringe of the immigration debate have suddenly found themselves helping to shape policy. One small Washington think tank has drawn newfound attention from the White House and criticism from some who consider it a hate group. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It's called the Center for Immigration Studies, and it came up a lot during the campaign.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that 62 percent of households headed by illegal immigrants use some form of cash or non-cash welfare programs.

ROSE: That's from Trump's stump speech in Phoenix last year. The campaign consulted with the Center for Immigration Studies, or CIS, while writing it. And the group's influence didn't stop there. Ideas it's been touting for years - cracking down on sanctuary cities and on children arriving alone at the U.S. border to seek asylum, for example - turned up in some of the first executive orders Trump signed.

MARK KRIKORIAN: We're the dog that caught the car.

ROSE: This is Mark Krikorian, the executive director of CIS, which favors restricting all immigration to the United States.

KRIKORIAN: We're tiny. We punch way above our weight.

ROSE: Krikorian has had the job for more than two decades. In that time, the center's influence has grown and so has his. Congressman Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, is the founder of the House Border Security Caucus.

LAMAR SMITH: I think there are probably two or three people in Washington who have a major impact on the immigration debate, and certainly Mark Krikorian is one of those.

ROSE: But the more visible Krikorian and CIS have become, the more longtime critics are pushing back.

HEIDI BEIRICH: Their ideas are rooted in racism.

ROSE: Heidi Beirich is with the Southern Poverty Law Center. It recently branded CIS a hate group. For years, the SPLC has sought to expose what it considers the white nationalist views of John Tanton, the Michigan doctor who helped create CIS and other groups. Krikorian says Tanton is no longer affiliated with CIS.

KRIKORIAN: He's never been to our offices. He's never had, in my experience - I mean, I've been here 22 years now - never had anything to do with what we do at the center.

ROSE: So why add CIS to the hate list now? Heidi Beirich says that's because CIS puts out a weekly newsletter that links to articles the law center considers racist and anti-Semitic.

BEIRICH: They can seem reasonable on one issue, and then the next day they're sending, you know, thousands of supporters anti-Semitic material. We think that's a bad thing.

ROSE: But Krikorian says the SPLC has an ulterior motive.

KRIKORIAN: The point of it is to delegitimize political voices they disagree with. You know, it's a kind of guilt by association game.

ROSE: This week, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, another group founded by Tanton, filed a formal complaint with the IRS, saying the Southern Poverty Law Center abused its nonprofit status by attacking Trump during the campaign. Tanton's defenders deny their ideas are rooted in racism. Krikorian's other critics decline to wade into that debate. They take issue with Krikorian's research.

ALEX NOWRASTEH: He's not an angry guy. He's fun to talk to. He's a great adversary in that way to have.

ROSE: But you're pretty sure that he's wrong.

NOWRASTEH: Oh, I'm convinced that he's wrong about all the facts and issues.

ROSE: Alex Nowrasteh is with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. He says CIS has a habit of cherry-picking evidence on crime and economics to make immigrants look bad.

NOWRASTEH: They're wrong about the impact of immigrants on the U.S. economy and on U.S. society.

KRIKORIAN: That's baloney.

ROSE: Krikorian says the reason CIS gets data others don't is because it's asking different questions.

KRIKORIAN: In a sense, our mission is to make immigration skepticism intellectually respectable.

ROSE: It's a mission that has put Mark Krikorian in the crosshairs. But it's also one that's finally earned him an audience in the Trump administration. Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY SONG, "SHIMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.