More than a mile high at its peak, Grandfather Mountain presents one of the most breathtaking vistas east of the Mississippi. Known worldwide for its ecological diversity, it is the centerpiece of the state's park system and a destination for 250,000 tourists each year.
In 1996, Fred Stanback and his family donated more than $3 million to save part of Grandfather Mountain. An heir to the Stanback headache-powder fortune, the Salisbury native is the state's leading environmental donor. He has given tens of millions of dollars to environmental groups to preserve other pristine areas in North Carolina, including parts of Chimney Rock and the Uwharrie National Forest.
Stanback, who is an alumnus of Duke and was the best man at Warren Buffett's wedding, sits on boards of major environmental groups. Widely respected, he has funded environmental programs at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Catawba College, as well as an internship program at Duke University that bears his name. And in 2008, then-Gov. Mike Easley presented Stanback and his wife, Alice, with the North Carolina Award, the state's highest civilian honor, for public service.
But the environment isn't Stanback's only cause. For the past 30 years, he has financially supported some of the nation's most powerful anti-immigration groups. These include the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), NumbersUSA, Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and Progressives for Immigration Reform (PFIR)—which have a similar agenda: reducing the number of immigrants into the U.S.
Being tough on immigration and pro-environment may seem politically incompatible. However, anti-immigration groups have targeted immigrants as responsible for a litany of environmental woes: overpopulation, excessive energy consumption, pollution, traffic and sprawl.
There is nothing wrong with holding positions that cut across ideological lines. But INDY Week has learned that for 15 years, Stanback was funding an internship program at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment that was placing interns not just in environmental programs but also at some of the leading anti-immigration organizations in the country—organizations that have a clear political agenda.
In 1995, Stanback's love of nature prompted him to establish the Stanback Internship Program at Duke's Nicholas School, which calls itself "one of the world's premier schools for the study of environmental science and policy." (He also has been a major funder of the Institute for the Environment at UNC, although the university has not produced the figures three months after the INDY's request.)
Stanback selects the organizations, which interview and hire students for summer work. He also pays each intern $5,000 to defray living expenses.
Most of the interns have been placed at one of the 40-plus legitimate environmental nonprofits such as the Southern Environmental Law Center and The Nature Conservancy. But in 1998, Stanback added FAIR to the list of organizations, followed by the Center for Immigration Studies in 1999. He selected NumbersUSA for the program in 2001, and the most recent addition, PFIR, which shares leadership with FAIR, in 2010.
With the exception of PFIR, none of the groups lists the environment as a primary focus. Their annual reports contain little information about the environment at all.
Of the 834 students who have participated in the Stanback Internship Program, 41 have interned at one of these anti-immigration groups: 14 at FAIR, three at CIS, 19 at NumbersUSA and five at PFIR, according to Duke figures.
Zhou Fang, a Duke sophomore, interviewed last year at one of the anti-immigration organizations as a prospective intern.
Fang had applied to nine organizations, but only one contacted him. He would not disclose the name of the group to the INDY because he is concerned about job prospects; nor did he state the name on his blog, where he also documented his experience.
Initially, Fang thought the organization was studying only immigration policy.
"It didn't sound anti-immigration," Fang, a second-generation Chinese immigrant, told the INDY. "It talked about population growth and sprawl. I thought maybe they had a point."
But at the interview in Washington, D.C., Fang became uneasy with the rhetoric. "They had a problem with legal immigration. They asked, 'Why are we letting them come and take our jobs?'
"I'd like to think I'm an open-minded person, but something didn't sit right with me," says Fang, who has a green card. "I called my dad and told him it was a sweet deal. The only problem is it's a lobbying organization for anti-immigration."
Fang declined the internship.
"Is it a core American value to limit immigration in a lot of ways these groups suggest?" he asks. "If that policy had been enacted 50 years ago, a lot of people wouldn't be here.
"Consider the agenda that colors policy and the arguments they make."
In February, the INDY called Duke about the internship program and the nature of these groups' activism. As a result of the INDY's investigation, Duke reviewed the organizations and pulled them from the internship program, says Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and government relations. "Our goal is to keep organizations with an environmental focus."
Although the university will honor any commitments for this summer, as of 2014, internships at those organizations will be discontinued. The Stanback Internship website no longer lists the groups.
Duke officials notified Stanback, and "he supports our decision," Schoenfeld says. In addition, Duke will more closely vet internship programs, a process that has been "more informal than formal."
"Now that this is on our radar, in the future we'll be more granular at looking at organizations," Schoenfeld adds.
In an email correspondence with the INDY, Stanback acknowledged that he chose a number of immigration policy nonprofits to be among those organizations that would take on interns from the Nicholas School. But he insisted that there was a connection with these organizations and environmental studies: the impact of population growth on the environment. "Because the majority of population growth in the U.S. is coming from immigration (mostly illegal) and few other environmental organizations are addressing this issue, I think students of the environment need to know about this."
The Southern Poverty Law Center feels differently and has challenged the environmental credibility of these groups. SPLC pointed out in 2010 that Roy Beck, director of NumbersUSA, paid more than $440,0000 to Newsmax Media, a far-right online publication that has run articles mocking the idea of global warming and arguing that "there is not a shred of evidence that DDT poses the least kind of threat to the health of the planet's people."
Stanback's history with anti-immigration groups dates to the 1980s, primarily through his financial ties to John Tanton (see sidebar). A Michigan ophthalmologist, Tanton founded or funded 13 such organizations, including three of the four in Stanback's Internship Program. (PFIR was established by anti-immigration environmentalists who unsuccessfully tried to enact a coup at Sierra Club board elections.)
With a regular presence on conservative TV and radio and combined revenues of $10.5 million, these four conservative groups have had significant influence over federal and state immigration policy, including The DREAM Act, E-Verify, amnesty and Senate Bill 1070 in Arizona, which endowed local law enforcement with some federal immigration powers. (The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned much of the law.)
"I have met the directors of these four groups and I have not detected any racist views expressed by these individuals," Stanback says.
A 2011 New York Times profile quoted Tanton as once saying "for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that."
Tanton sits on the FAIR board of advisors; he is not a director.
While many of Tanton's groups want to roll back all immigration, Stanback says he's focusing on illegal immigration. "I have encouraged the [organizations] to support changes in the law to allow highly educated individuals, often trained in our best universities, to stay in this country," Stanback told the INDY. "At the same time I think we should enforce the law to prevent illegal immigrants from crossing the border."
Yet critics say environmental concerns are a smokescreen for an anti-immigrant agenda; nor do these groups focus on the core issues—energy policy, sound urban planning, tighter environmental regulations—that could address not just national but global environmental problems.
"The desire of these organizations is to leverage the environmental movement against immigration," says Domenic Powell, senior organizer with Center for New Community, a racial justice nonprofit in Chicago. "The overpopulation issue and conservation is at the intellectual core of the anti-immigrant movement."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Muddy waters."