In a departure from its usual fare of public lands, pollution and endangered species, the Sierra Club is about to enter a potentially divisive debate about immigration, the outcome of which could alter the way people think and talk about the issue.
Members of America’s largest and most prestigious environmental organization will vote in March whether to reverse the club’s neutral policy and endorse a drastic reduction in immigration as a way to slow U.S. population growth.
Approval of the measure, which will appear on the club’s annual mail-in ballot, could help change the argument for cutting immigration, focusing on its effect on the environment as well as its economic and cultural impact. It also could set a precedent for other environmental groups, several of which are considering whether to adopt a position on immigration.
A resounding defeat, on the other hand, could put the brakes on an alliance between environmentalists and immigration opponents, which some fear would alienate minority communities and distract groups like the Sierra Club from traditional work, such as preserving wilderness areas.
“The battle of where they come out on immigration is of huge importance,” said Brad Erickson, who directs the small San Francisco-based Political Ecology Group and has been critical of groups using environmental arguments to restrict immigration. “This is really going to be a litmus test for the broader environmental movement.”
Anti-immigration groups have tried for years to pull mainstream environmentalists into their camp, using personal letters to high-level activists, ads in magazines and newsletters, conferences with environmental themes and research papers that appear to support their arguments.
Advocates of immigrants’ rights contend that environmental groups should focus on wasteful U.S. consumption levels and work to reduce global population growth by improving opportunities for women and making birth control more accessible.
The Sierra Club and other large environmental groups have been reluctant to take a position on the issue, in part because their members are so divided.
“This is a very large and diverse club,” said Carl Pope, executive director of the 550,000-member organization. “The environment is the only thing that unites us, and this is not really an environmental issue.”
For more than a decade, however, restrictionists have argued that immigration is the ultimate environmental issue, feeding population growth that leads to traffic jams, polluted air, water shortages, encroachment on public lands, even the extinction of plants and animals.
“We cannot protect our environment if we don’t stabilize our population,” said Virginia Abernethy, a Vanderbilt University anthropologist and a high-profile proponent of an immigration moratorium.
Abernethy said the current, historically high level of legal immigration is driving the rate of U.S. population growth to unacceptable levels. (About 900,000 immigrants come to this country legally each year; the proposal going before Sierra Club members would support trimming that to about 200,000.) Immigrants and their children account for about 55% of U.S. population growth each year, and the share is growing, Abernethy said.
If not for immigration, Abernethy said, U.S. population rates would soon be stable.
Abernethy also is a director of the Washington, D.C.-based Population-Environment Balance, which tried twice in the past two years to form a coalition of environmental groups in favor of immigration restrictions. Both attempts failed to attract mainstream organizations, but they inspired other immigration opponents to make the connection.
“Until now, my focus has been on cultural and economic impacts,” said Barbara Coe, a Huntington Beach anti-immigration activist who attended a conference sponsored by Population-Environment Balance in Colorado last month. “This is about to change.”
Some Sierra Club members said they object to having even a tenuous link with groups such as Coe’s California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which co-sponsored the 1994 anti-illegal immigration ballot initiative Proposition 187--an initiative opposed by the Sierra Club. Proposition 187, approved overwhelmingly by California voters but held up in federal court, would deny public benefits, including education and health care, to illegal immigrants.
Some club members also said they are uncomfortable with the groups making the environment-immigration connection.
The dominant voice among them is the Federation of American Immigration Reform, started in 1978 by John Tanton, a former Sierra Club executive director and former president of Zero Population Growth, who broke with both groups because they refused to take on immigration.
FAIR has been a leader in advocating tighter border control and reduced levels of legal immigration. It also has drawn fire for accepting money from the Pioneer Fund, which has given money to researchers in eugenics, a pseudoscience embraced by the Nazis that seeks to improve the human race through selective breeding.
Such connections were raised two years ago, the last time the Sierra Club considered the immigration issue. The question was debated fiercely for months until the club’s 15-member board tried to end the discussion in February 1996 by adopting a neutral position.
“It was distracting us. It tore us apart,” said Bruce Hamilton, the club’s conservation director. “We decided instead to focus on all the other conservation and population issues we could agree on.”
But the board’s decision infuriated some members, who immediately began circulating a petition to put the question to a vote of its rank and file.
Leading the charge was Alan Kuper, a retired engineering professor from Cleveland and a 24-year Sierra Club member who once sat on the group’s national population committee. Kuper said the club betrayed its own mission “to protect and preserve America’s wildlands and forests” by refusing to address a major source of population growth.
“How can we protect America’s anything, but certainly the things we’re concerned with, if we don’t deal with the rapidly growing U.S. population?” he asked. “The underlying cause of our environmental problems is too many people, and everybody knows that. But it is so difficult to talk about.”
Last month, after volunteers gathered 2,200 signatures, Kuper qualified his measure for the ballot. The one-paragraph question asks if the club should “adopt a comprehensive population policy . . . that continues to advocate an end to U.S. population growth at the earliest possible time through reduction in natural increase (births minus deaths), but now also through reduction in net immigration (immigration minus emigration).”
Almost immediately, an opposing Sierra Club faction warned that Kuper’s resolution would expose the club to charges of racism and elitism and alienate politicians who have been friends on such issues as logging and wetlands protection.
Board members meeting in San Francisco earlier this month tried to defuse a nasty fight by putting a competing measure on the ballot, which reaffirms the club’s neutral position on U.S. immigration policies.
Ballots will be mailed to about 550,000 members, but typically less than 15% vote, Pope said.
To ensure fairness, the club appointed director Michael Dorsey to watch over the election this spring. Dorsey said the club will publicize a pair of articles on the two ballot measures in the club’s January-February issue of Sierra magazine and predicted that there will be spirited discussion in the club.
“There are still seven months for members to shape their opinions,” he said. “This is stage one right now, and my job is to make sure it doesn’t blow up and we don’t have people screaming and yelling.
“When the vote comes down, hopefully it will be decisive and fair and we can lay this matter to rest once and for all.”