In Her Own Words: The Woman Who Bankrolled the Anti-Immigration Movement

Cordelia Scaife May, an heiress to the Mellon family’s banking and industrial fortune, was far and away the most important donor to the modern anti-immigration movement during her lifetime. Now, more than a decade after her death, her money still funds the leading organizations fighting to reduce migration.

Her Colcom Foundation has poured $180 million into groups that spent decades agitating for policies now pursued by President Trump: militarizing the border, capping legal immigration and prioritizing skills over family ties for entry. And language she used — about the threat of an “immigrant invasion,” for instance, and environmental strain — echoes in today’s anti-immigration rhetoric, most recently in the words of the killer in the El Paso mass shooting.

The New York Times unearthed letters from Mrs. May and other personal writings that reveal what motivated the movement’s publicity-shy benefactor.

Mrs. May’s efforts on immigration grew out of a progressive interest in protecting the environment and reducing the population through birth control. Long before her views became more radical and took root in the Trump administration, Mrs. May was a nature-loving Roosevelt Republican, and a friend and admirer of the Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.

Population control was very much a mainstream concern in the 1960s and ’70s, but interest in it waned after the baby boom tailed off in the United States. Mrs. May’s confidence in birth control would give way to abortion advocacy. And she would be among the first, and most financially influential, to set her sights on immigration as an alarming source of population growth in the United States.

The groups she went on to fund would lobby against legislation that included amnesties for unauthorized immigrants, and push restrictive state and local bills across the country.

In her writings, Mrs. May contended that the country was being “invaded on all fronts by immigrants.” Complaining about the Cubans who arrived in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift, she cited their “criminal habits, radical political thought, exotic diseases, neighborhood disruption,” but said their “most dangerous contribution” was their high birthrate, “far higher than that of our native population.”

“They breed like hamsters,” she wrote.

Groups she supported have painted illegal immigrants as criminals and disease carriers, and as taking public benefits and jobs meant for American citizens. While there is no evidence of Mrs. May — or the groups she supported — calling for violence, many of these ideas were echoed in the manifesto by the gunman in the recent mass shooting in El Paso. He cited a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” as justification for the attack, and deplored environmental degradation and population growth exacerbated by “invaders who also have close to the highest birthrate of all ethnicities in America.”

The anti-immigration movement funded by Mrs. May’s money extends far beyond the three best-known groups, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA. Her fortune has nurtured an entire ecosystem, including more oblique efforts like a movement to make English the nation’s official language, and a publishing house and television productions that advocate limiting immigration.

The sheer number of these groups helped the anti-immigration movement succeed by giving it the appearance of broad-based support.

Since Mr. Trump’s election, former staff members from groups like FAIR and the Center for Immigration Studies have assumed key roles in the administration’s immigration apparatus, working with Stephen Miller, the architect of the president’s immigration agenda.