She was an heiress without a cause — an indifferent student, an unhappy young bride, a miscast socialite. Her most enduring passion was for birds.
But Cordelia Scaife May eventually found her life’s purpose: curbing what she perceived as the lethal threat of overpopulation by trying to shut America’s doors to immigrants.
She believed that the United States was “being invaded on all fronts” by foreigners, who “breed like hamsters” and exhaust natural resources. She thought that the border with Mexico should be sealed and that abortions on demand would contain the swelling masses in developing countries.
An heiress to the Mellon banking and industrial fortune with a half-billion dollars at her disposal, Mrs. May helped create what would become the modern anti-immigration movement. She bankrolled the founding and operation of the nation’s three largest restrictionist groups — the Federation for American Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies — as well as dozens of smaller ones, including some that have promulgated white nationalist views.
Today, 14 years after Mrs. May’s death, her money remains the lifeblood of the movement, through her Colcom Foundation. It has poured $180 million into a network of groups that spent decades agitating for policies now pursued by President Trump: militarizing the border, capping legal immigration, prioritizing skills over family ties for entry and reducing access to public benefits for migrants, as in the new rule issued just this week by the administration.
Mrs. May’s story helps explain the ascendance of once-fringe views in the debate over immigration in America, including exaggerated claims of criminality, disease or dependency on public benefits among migrants. Though their methods radically diverged, Mrs. May and the killer in the recent mass shooting in El Paso applied the same language, both warning of an immigrant “invasion,” an idea also promoted by Mr. Trump.
In many ways, the Trump presidency is the culmination of Mrs. May’s vision for strictly limiting immigration. Groups that she funded shared policy proposals with Mr. Trump’s campaign, sent key staff members to join his administration and have close ties to Stephen Miller, the architect of his immigration agenda to upend practices adopted by his Democratic and Republican predecessors.
“She would have fit in very fine in the current White House,” said George Zeidenstein, whose mainstream population-control group Mrs. May supported before she shifted to anti-immigration advocacy. “She would have found a sympathetic ear with the present occupant.”
Unlike her more famous brother, the right-wing philanthropist and publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, Mrs. May largely stayed out of the public eye. A childless widow who lived alone outside Pittsburgh, she instructed associates not to reveal her philanthropic interests and in some cases even to destroy her correspondence. While her unlikely role as the quiet bursar to anti-immigration organizations has been previously reported, her motivation and engagement in the immigration issue remained largely hidden.
The New York Times, through dozens of interviews and searches of court records, government filings and archives across the country, has unearthed the most complete record of her thinking. Mrs. May’s unpublished writings reveal her evolution from an environmental-minded Theodore Roosevelt Republican — in 1972 she was the nation’s largest single donor to mainstream congressional candidates — to an ardent nativist. Her ideological transformation presaged the Republican Party’s own shift from blue-blooded, traditional conservatism toward hard-right populism.
Chatty, handwritten notes to John D. Rockefeller III, the philanthropist Helen Clay Frick and the head of the National Audubon Society about luncheons and overseas trips gradually gave way over the years to darker exchanges with fringe figures who believed that black people were less intelligent than white people, Latino immigrants were criminals and white Americans were being displaced.
But Mrs. May disputed the notion that she was racist, writing to a grant recipient in November 1994, “Can we not put imaginary paper bags over the immigrants’ heads, see them as colorless consumers, and count only their deleterious numbers?”
Restrictionist groups she financed have blocked attempts at amnesties and immigration reform bills in Congress over the years. They fought for Proposition 187 in California to deny education, routine health care and other public services to undocumented immigrants; they argued against in-state tuition for the children of undocumented workers in Utah. They supported “show me your papers” laws in Arizona and Georgia and draconian local ordinances in Hazleton, Pa., and Farmers Branch, Tex.
“We occupied the space before anybody, and the people who helped found the organization and fund the organization, including Mrs. May, were people of enormous foresight and wisdom,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, who knew Mrs. May. “They would be gratified over the fact that we’ve seen these ideas championed at the highest level.”
The groups have wasted little time seizing the moment since Donald Trump came to the White House. As Mr. Stein’s organization, known as FAIR, put it in a federal tax filing last year, Mr. Trump’s election presented “a unique opportunity” to enact its longstanding agenda of “building the wall, ending chain migration, rolling back dangerous sanctuary policies, eliminating the visa lottery” and more.
Nowhere in the document is the name of its largest benefactor ever mentioned.
“Without Cordy May, there’s no FAIR,” said Roger Conner, the organization’s first executive director. “There was no money without her.”
Two Passions Converge
Mrs. May’s immigration activism began in the 1970s, when the numbers of legal and illegal arrivals in the country were reaching heights unseen in decades. But she grew up during a period with the lowest levels of immigration in a century (and lower than any period since), thanks to a 1924 law that imposed strict quotas favoring Western European migrants. Her family lived in a part of the picturesque Ligonier Valley, outside Pittsburgh, that was more than 99 percent white when she was a child.
When the first photographs of an infant Cordelia Mellon Scaife appeared in newspapers across the country, she was heralded as potentially “the richest baby in the world.” Her life would be one of privilege: Her family vacationed in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and in Palm Beach, Fla., their movements tracked in society columns.
Young Cordy grew up in a stately Cotswold-style manor, staffed with servants, known as Penguin Court. Her eccentric mother, Sarah Mellon Scaife, tried to breed emperor penguins to waddle the grounds after the craze over Adm. Richard E. Byrd’s Antarctic expeditions.
But Mrs. Scaife, a sharp-tongued art collector, was an alcoholic and her daughter later described her youth as largely miserable. A friend of her parents, the dancer-actor Fred Astaire, tried to help her get discovered in Hollywood when she was 19 but her trip was ill timed. “The only star around was Lassie,” she remarked to an author, Burton Hersh, writing about the Mellon family.
After a marriage at age 20 that lasted just a few months, Mrs. May joined in the family tradition of philanthropy. Her mother had provided funding for Dr. Jonas Salk’s lab at the University of Pittsburgh, where he developed the polio vaccine. Mrs. May became active in local charities, including a children’s health center and a school for the blind, and started the Laurel Foundation in 1951, when she was 23, to channel her giving. She also donated to Republican candidates, both local and national.
But it was Margaret Sanger, the famous and, in some circles, scandalous founder of Planned Parenthood, who provided the sense of direction Mrs. May had craved. Mrs. Sanger was a close friend of her grandmother. Mrs. May acknowledged that it was not the birth control pioneer’s “works or ideals” that initially appealed to her but the fact that she had been jailed for her activities.
Mrs. May first worked for the Planned Parenthood chapter in Pittsburgh and later joined the board of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. “I have always admired and tried to take a part in the work that you started,” she wrote in a 1961 letter to Mrs. Sanger.
Mrs. May appeared to live relatively modestly, considering her means, but she kept a private jet nearby and flew around the world on nature expeditions. She was more comfortable banding birds at a wildlife sanctuary than hobnobbing at a cocktail party. She lived in the woods in Ligonier in a house she called Cold Comfort, after the satirical British novel “Cold Comfort Farm.” (The book’s heroine meddles in the lives of her distant rural relations and even counsels a servant about birth control.)
Her twin passions, protecting natural habitats and helping women prevent unplanned pregnancies, merged over time into a single goal of preserving the environment by discouraging offspring altogether. “The unwanted child is not the problem,” she would later write, “but, rather, the wanted one that society, for diverse cultural reasons, demands.”
For some of America’s elite in the 1960s and ’70s, supporting efforts to limit population growth was partly an act of noblesse oblige. The Fords donated millions for United Nations-backed family planning projects worldwide.
Mrs. May joined the board of the Population Council, a group founded by John D. Rockefeller III that emphasized family planning and economic development as ways to lower birthrates around the world. She and some relatives together contributed $11.4 million to the council during the 1960s, and Mrs. May joined the group’s president, Frank Notestein, on trips to Asia to review projects.
Overpopulation became an even more mainstream concern in the United States after the runaway success of “The Population Bomb,” the 1968 book by the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich. After the enormous bulge of baby boomers, many Americans came to favor smaller families.
But a 1973 letter to the Population Council from Mrs. May’s office revealed her increasingly tough stance on population control. Contraceptives had made too little impact, the letter said.
“Although we are conscious of the highly sensitive nature of this subject,” it said, “we feel confident that the leadership position of the council in the population field can be used to greatly accelerate the availability of abortion services worldwide on an ‘abortion upon request’ basis.”
Sealed Borders and Sterilization
In August 1973, Mrs. May secretly remarried, this time to her childhood friend and longtime companion Robert W. Duggan, the district attorney in the county that includes Pittsburgh. The couple paid $5 for a justice of the peace in Nevada to wed them in a remote spot on Lake Tahoe.
When the marriage was disclosed, it made front-page news in Pittsburgh, in part because her new husband was fighting to stay out of prison amid a federal corruption probe. The swift nuptials had come between his appearances before a grand jury, and just days after Mrs. May was summoned by the Internal Revenue Service.
Six months later, Mr. Duggan was indicted for evading taxes on payoffs he received from an illegal gambling ring. The same day, he was found dead at his country house, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot.
Mrs. May blamed her brother for turning on her husband. The siblings had long shared advisers, worked on charitable matters together and helped each other, but the rupture was so complete that they stopped speaking. The scandal and the ensuing tragedy in essence robbed Mrs. May of her two closest confidants.
In a letter to her fellow Pittsburgh-born heiress Helen Clay Frick, Mrs. May described how she had “wangled a cabin from a ranger in a remote canyon in Arizona,” where, she said, she had responded to nearly 2,500 condolence cards. She turned her attention to population meetings at an upcoming United Nations conference, which, she wryly concluded, would feature demands for wealth redistribution and “a thorough denunciation of the United States.”
By the end of the year, after more than two decades working with Planned Parenthood, she had resigned from the group. Two years later, her top aide delivered a stern message to Mr. Zeidenstein, the new president of the Population Council: Family planning and famine relief were a waste of money. Instead, “the U.S. should seal its border” with Mexico. According to a memo by Mr. Zeidenstein, Mrs. May’s views were becoming so radicalized that “one got the impression” she favored compulsory sterilization to limit birthrates in developing countries.
Mr. Rockefeller, taken aback by Mrs. May’s shift, wrote to her that he “had not been aware that differences of this seeming magnitude existed between us.” She responded that she would have severed ties sooner if not for her regard for him, and sent him the mission statement for a new group she had bankrolled, the Environmental Fund.
Buried in the document was a telling reference. “Immigration,” the statement said, “should also be brought into balance with emigration immediately.”
Courting Mrs. May
The Environmental Fund pushed mainstream concerns about overpopulation to the fringe and stoked opposition to immigration. Virginia Abernethy, a self-described “ethnic separatist” who became involved in the group, now called Population-Environment Balance, said in an interview that Mrs. May was “the first person who comes to mind” of those who pushed the population-control movement to oppose immigration.
“She funded a great deal of the original research,” said Ms. Abernethy, a retired Vanderbilt University professor who spoke last year at a white nationalist conference headlined by the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Through her work with the fund, the heiress struck up a close friendship with Garrett Hardin, a microbiologist and ecologist who argued that the modern welfare state encouraged overpopulation and ecological depletion. When Mrs. May sent him news clippings about riots in Los Angeles, Mr. Hardin responded that the media was finally seeing that “maybe the blacks are less than saintly” and lamented “the predominant Latinity of apprehended criminals” where he lived in California.
“The hope of the future,” he said, “lies in the intelligent practice of discrimination.”
She also met John Tanton, a charismatic eye doctor and environmentalist from Michigan, who would leverage Mrs. May’s financial resources to propel the budding anti-immigration movement forward.
With the square-jawed good looks of a soap opera M.D., Dr. Tanton, who died last month at 85, worked with Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club and was the national president of Zero Population Growth in the 1970s. As the Baby Boom ebbed, he turned his attention to curbing immigration.
In 1978, immigration surged: The Border Patrol apprehended 863,000 unauthorized immigrants, the most in over two decades. Another 601,000 legal immigrants also arrived, the greatest number since the 1924 immigration act. U.S. News & World Report published a cover story the next year sounding the alarm about chaos at the border with “illegal aliens.”
That November, Dr. Tanton wrote a nine-page proposal for funding from Mrs. May to start a group called the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR.
“We plan to make the restriction of immigration a legitimate position for thinking people,” he wrote. Mrs. May provided $50,000 to get the group off the ground.
FAIR’s early policy goals, some reflected decades later in proposals pursued by the Trump administration, called for not only an end to illegal immigration, but also a sharp reduction in legal migration. The group advocated increased funding and staffing for Border Patrol to police the southern frontier, campaigned against Cuban refugees and pushed to restrict public benefits for undocumented immigrants.
Dr. Tanton redoubled his attention to Mrs. May with flowery letters quoting Shakespeare, research into birds she was curious about and recommendations for a game ranch in Kenya. He invited her to a nature preserve in Michigan.
His internal memorandums betrayed the cold calculus behind his attentions. “Mrs. May has been our single biggest supporter. She just gave us another $400,000,” he wrote. “That relationship is pretty well under control.”
Patrick Burns, an early employee of FAIR who would often talk to Mrs. May at the group’s events, saw her as vulnerable. “She was isolated up in Ligonier and John was a predator who got inside her perimeter wire and basically found a source of money to fund the immigration reform movement,” he said in an interview. “John looked at Cordy as a buffalo to hunt and bone out for wealth.”
The Tanton-May Network
Mrs. May faced criticism even from within her family for the groups she supported. A young cousin asked whether her causes weren’t discriminatory, racist or, as Mrs. May recalled in a letter, “the one that really puts my teeth on edge … ‘elitist.’”
She produced a five-page typed response, rife with comments about Filipinos “pouring” into Hawaii and “Orientals and Indians” sneaking across “long stretches of unmanned border” with Canada.
She compared medical science’s success in reducing infant mortality rates to veterinarians prolonging the lives “of useless cattle.” Birthrates had dropped in a few areas, she noted, and millions died of starvation every year, but population growth rates continued to climb. “Even wars no longer make much dent; during 11 years of conflict, both North and South Vietnam showed a net increase in population,” she wrote.
Legal and illegal immigration led to overpopulation, she said, “the root cause of unemployment, inflation, urban sprawl, highway (and skyway) congestion, shortages of all sorts (not the least of which is energy), vanishing farmland, environmental deterioration and civil unrest.”
Mrs. May’s Laurel Foundation gave $5,000 to the Institute for Western Values to distribute a translation of the French dystopian novel “The Camp of the Saints” in the United States. The book, about an invasion of poor immigrants overwhelming Europe, is an essential text in white-nationalist circles and has often been cited by the former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. A subsequent English edition was published by the Social Contract Press, which was founded by Dr. Tanton and funded by Mrs. May’s foundation.
Mrs. May credited Dr. Tanton with helping her realize she could take a stand for her beliefs. “I used to think that you just had to take it,” she said during a 1985 visit to the offices of U.S. English, his initiative to make English the official language of the United States. “You don’t: You can organize and be active and do something about it.”
Internal FAIR documents show that her advisers played just such an active role in the development of Dr. Tanton’s growing network of groups. Mrs. May’s longtime adviser Gregory Curtis advocated splitting off FAIR’s research component, which became the Center for Immigration Studies in 1986. Dr. Tanton also broke off FAIR’s litigation arm, and continued founding or fostering new groups.
The move was “critical in not just hiding the sources of funding, but it allowed his creations to meet the I.R.S.’s so-called public support test,” which prevents charities from relying too heavily on a single donor, said Charles Kamasaki, a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute who has worked on the pro-immigration side of the issue. “Part of Tanton’s genius, and it really was genius, was creating these multiple shells,” he said.
The sheer number of groups nurtured with Mrs. May’s money — dozens over four decades — played an important role in the success of the anti-immigration movement by giving it the appearance of broad-based support. Groups would send representatives to appear before Congress, talk to journalists and provide briefs in lawsuits, without disclosing their common origins and funding.
When Dr. Tanton had trouble getting grass-roots support for an Arizona ballot initiative in 1988 to require government business to be conducted only in English, he turned to Mrs. May to pay canvassers. When he decided in the 1980s to host a gathering of a brain trust to strengthen the intellectual underpinnings of the movement, Mrs. May committed $15,000 a year and the use of her Gulfstream jet.
Among those who attended over the years were Richard Lamm, then governor of Colorado, who co-wrote a book called “The Immigration Time Bomb,” and Jared Taylor, a white nationalist who has argued that black people are less intelligent than other races.
Charges of consorting with racists helped push Dr. Tanton to the fringe of acceptable debate, after a private memo he wrote warning of a “Latin onslaught” became public. Dr. Tanton fell further out of favor when it emerged that FAIR had secretly accepted more than $1 million from the Pioneer Fund, a group that embraced eugenics.
But Mrs. May remained loyal. “John became the one who would carry her legacy forward the way a son or a daughter would,” said Mr. Conner, the former executive director of FAIR, who has been critical of the turn the group took. “John assured her what she believed in her life would carry on.”
An Enduring and Vital Influence
In 1996, Mrs. May, then 68, established a new foundation, Colcom, to pursue her most important goals even after her death, including assisting charitable initiatives in Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania, as well as cultural and environmental causes.
But environmental groups were “doomed to failure,” she wrote in her nonprofit application to the I.R.S., until they recognized “that the degradation of our natural world results ultimately from the press of human numbers.” In addition to stricter immigration, she supported “the study of human intelligence as it relates to schools and the workplace” and “research in the area of human differences,” she explained, echoing the language of the eugenics movement.
According to tax documents, Colcom has funded not only FAIR and other large organizations Mrs. May helped create, but also lesser-known ones like the American Immigration Control Foundation, which has likened immigration to a “military conquest” with the effect of “substantially replacing the native population”; the International Services Assistance Fund, whose focus is promoting chemical sterilization of women around the world; and VDare, a website that regularly publishes white nationalists and whose name is derived from Virginia Dare, the first child of English settlers born in the New World.
John Rohe, vice president for philanthropy at Colcom, said “it’s impossible for me to know what every recipient of a grant from Colcom puts out,” but that racial discrimination had no place in Colcom’s views on immigration.
“We should have a pro-immigrant, nonracial immigration policy,” said Mr. Rohe, who previously worked with Dr. Tanton before joining Colcom. “It should not be based on race. It’s only based on the numbers.”
Colcom has given generously to a group once run by Dr. Tanton called U.S. Inc. Largely using money from Mrs. May, U.S. Inc. has funded immigration-related groups in at least 18 states and the District of Columbia.
One of them was NumbersUSA, today the largest grass-roots organization in the country advocating reduced immigration. Its greatest success was helping to derail comprehensive immigration reform under President George W. Bush, by mobilizing supporters to flood their representatives with calls and faxes.
“Without them it would be a very different situation,” Roy Beck, the president of NumbersUSA, said of Colcom. “We’d be functioning at a very different level.”
NumbersUSA and the other main restrictionist groups funded by Mrs. May emphasize that they want stricter limits on immigration, but do not oppose all immigration. They reject any contention that prejudice or xenophobia motivates them. The Center for Immigration Studies sued the Southern Poverty Law Center for designating it a hate group, a label the law center has also applied to FAIR.
The nation’s failure to stop the Sept. 11 hijackers presented the anti-immigration groups with a powerful opportunity to link migration and security, driving a militarization of the border that continues to this day. From the rise of the Minutemen to the start of the Tea Party to the Trump presidency, the Tanton-May network has harnessed each surge of anti-immigration sentiment.
The main groups cultivated new allies in Congress, none stronger than Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama, whose office served as an unofficial Capitol Hill headquarters for the restrictionist movement. Mr. Sessions, who later became attorney general in the Trump administration, hired as a spokesman Stephen Miller, who would give a keynote address at a Center for Immigration Studies event years later, in 2015, before joining the Trump campaign.
Though her money and activism seeded the political landscape for Mr. Trump’s nativist policies — he argues that “the country is full,” claims Mexicans are “dirty” and “dangerous” and immigrants are stealing jobs — the heiress would not see the Queens real estate heir ascend to the presidency. Mrs. May, who had pancreatic cancer, died at her home in 2005, at age 76. Her death was ruled a suicide by asphyxiation.
She left land on the island of Maui to the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. Her Gulfstream jet was sold for $26.7 million. She was remembered in the local press for her devotion to the environment and family planning, her support of Pittsburgh’s aviary and her quixotic bequest to a donkey sanctuary in Devon, England. Her obituary in the local paper didn’t mention immigration at all.
Mrs. May left almost everything to the Colcom Foundation. In 2005, $215 million from her family trust poured into the foundation’s coffers, along with another $30 million from her personal estate. As her affairs were wound up, another $176 million transferred from her estate in 2006.
In all, since Mrs. May’s death, the anti-immigration groups have received $180 million. The market value of Colcom’s assets is $500 million, more than she bequeathed it in the first place.
Thanks to her vast inherited fortune, Mrs. May’s ideas, and causes, survive her.
“The issues which I have supported during my lifetime have not been popular ones in many cases, nor do I anticipate that they will be so in the future,” Mrs. May wrote to Colcom’s board members in the group’s mission statement, calling on them “to exercise the courage of their convictions” after her death.
“The presence of controversy,” she said, “is often a certain sign that unexamined opinions are being challenged.”