Appeals Court favors release of University of Michigan records of anti-immigrant leader

Immigrant advocates are hoping a recent court decision could lead to the release of sealed records at the University of Michigan of Dr. John Tanton of Petoskey, seen as the architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.

In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel in Detroit with the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned the decision of a lower court judge who had thrown out a lawsuit filed in 2017 by immigration attorney Hassan Ahmad asking the university to release boxes of Tanton’s records. The closed files could shed light on groups and leaders, seen by critics as racist, who are influencing current immigration policies.

Under an agreement with the University of Michigan, Tanton, an 85-year-old retired ophthalmologist, has 11 boxes of his records under seal until 2035. The university had argued to the court that since the records were sealed by the agreement, they were not public records and therefore could not be released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

But in its ruling on June 21, the Court of Appeals dismissed that argument, saying that the sealed records are public records and should be made available.

“Contrary to the ruling of the Court of Claims, the complaint states a valid claim that the papers are public records,” the judges wrote in their 3-0 decision.

Ahmad praised the Court of Appeals’ ruling.

“This case is about transparency,” Ahmad said. “You can’t contract around the law: public record means public record. And when those records may show connections between white nationalists and the White House, I can’t imagine a stronger public interest. Look at what’s happening at the border, in child jails, in our immigrant communities.”

In 2017, Ahmad initially filed a FOIA request with the University of Michigan seeking Tanton’s sealed records. After the university rejected his request, he filed a lawsuit.

Ahmad has argued that the records should be made public since Tanton has had a significant influence in the immigration debate, driving many of the ideas behind current policies under President Donald Trump.

Tanton has donated to the university 25 boxes of records: boxes 1 to 14 are open to researchers while 15 to 25 are sealed. The 11 sealed boxes include correspondence or records of Tanton’s interactions with groups he has founded or supported over the decades, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which has been influential in the Trump administration.

By Niraj Warikoo for DETROIT FREE PRESS
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