Sierra Club to Remain Neutral on Immigration


Sweeping aside a campaign that polarized environmentalists and prompted international cries of racism, members of the nation’s most powerful environmental group overwhelmingly voted to retain their neutral stance on immigration, the Sierra Club announced Saturday.

In a landslide victory for the Sierra Club’s leaders, 60.1% of voting members favored neutrality on the nation’s immigration policies, while 39.2% supported a measure calling for stricter curbs.

Though the vote has little or no impact on U.S. immigration policy, the campaign spurred a historic round of soul-searching for the environmental movement, which has wrestled with neutrality on an explosive issue that so clearly divides Americans, especially in California.


Some environmentalists view immigration’s impact on population growth in the United States as a root cause of the world’s worries about pollution and destruction of natural resources. But others, including the Sierra Club’s top leaders, say curbing U.S. immigration does nothing to solve the Earth’s environmental troubles or overpopulation, and alienates people of color.

If the first group’s measure had passed, the world’s largest and most influential environmental group would have taken a stance that seemingly blames immigrants for America’s pollution, sprawl and other environmental problems. Many critics called the ballot campaign racist and elitist--the “greening of hate”--and it bitterly divided the group’s members.

“We cannot protect our environment by putting a wall around our borders,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. “Birth control, not border patrols, is the common sense solution to over-population.”

Supporters of the curb immigration campaign, who were disappointed but not surprised, vowed Saturday to try again next year.

“Today is a loss for the environment and a victory for the pro-growth forces,” said Rick Oberlink, a Berkeley lawyer who is one of the leaders of the campaign. “The environment arguments were overwhelmingly on our side.”

The 15% turnout--nearly 85,000 votes cast out of the membership of 550,000--was the largest in a decade in the Sierra Club’s internal mail-in elections, which are held annually. Ballots were mailed to members in March.


Sierra Club President Adam Werbach said it was the most extensively debated policy issue in the group’s history--more so than its stances on such controversies as nuclear power, global warming and deforestation.

Werbach and other Sierra Club leaders said a vote in favor of curbing immigration would have crippled the group’s recent efforts to reach out to minorities in the United States, who suffer a disproportionate burden from water and air pollution.

A Membership Divided

The Sierra Club in the past few years has tried to branch out from its reputation for building hiking trails and protecting open space and has pushed to safeguard people from urban pollution.

“The membership has told the Sierra Club that we should not be involved in immigration policy,” Werbach said. “There is no place in the Sierra Club for blaming immigrants for environmental problems.”

Sierra Club leaders said the anti-immigration campaign not only polarized the membership but tarnished the group’s international reputation and wasted the group’s time and resources on an issue on which it has little expertise or clout.

They worried that it would undermine the group’s efforts to deal with global overpopulation and damage to wildlife and forests in other countries, especially Mexico, because people there are now wary of the Sierra Club. The International Herald Tribune described it as a “vote on whether immigrants should be viewed as a form of toxic waste.” The group’s leaders were clearly relieved that the measure failed by more than a slim margin.

“I was terrified,” said Werbach, who had threatened to resign if the proposal passed.

The measure to advocate a “reduction in net immigration” was added to the ballot by a renegade group of members who obtained more than 1,200 signatures on a petition. In response, the group’s leadership added a countermeasure that reaffirmed the club’s neutrality on the issue.

The Sierra Club vote was in stark contrast to the vote in California four years ago that overwhelmingly supported Proposition 187, which restricted benefits to illegal immigrants. It was adopted by a 59% to 41% vote--nearly the opposite of the Sierra Club tally.

If Sierra Club members had supported immigration curbs, they would have been teaming up with the California Republican Party and Gov. Pete Wilson--an unusual alliance for environmental activists.

About one-third of the members of the San Francisco-based Sierra Club are from California, where immigration policy is even more polarizing than in much of the rest of the country. No breakout of how regions of the country voted was available. Many environmentalists believe that setting immigration policy does not resolve pollution and resource problems because it simply involves moving people--and the environmental problems they cause--from one place to another.

Instead, the Sierra Club takes a stance against global overpopulation, advocating birth control--especially in developing countries--and reduced consumption of natural resources in an effort to protect air, water, wildlife and forests.

“Overpopulation is, without question, a fundamental cause of the world’s ills,” Pope said. “[But] blaming the population crisis on immigrants is like blaming our kids for the state of our schools.”

Supporters of the ballot measure, however, note that the United States is the leader in global consumption, contributing vast amounts of greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting chemicals. Unless the country can control its own population, they say, it cannot protect the rest of the planet.

Although the United States has only 4% of the Earth’s population, it is responsible for about 25% of the world’s consumption of resources.

The proponents said that because immigrants and their children account for more than half of the population growth in the United States, it is intellectually dishonest for the Sierra Club to attack overpopulation but not immigration.

Issue Won’t Die, Backers Say

A recent study under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences found that at the current rates of growth, new immigrants and their offspring will account for two-thirds of the increase in the nation’s population between 1995 and 2050. During that period, the study found, the population will grow by nearly 50%, to 387 million. Immigration control “is part of a complicated picture of addressing population globally and domestically,” Oberlink said. “We need a sustainable population in the United States. Population has a tremendous impact on our wildlands and our open space here.”

Supporters of the curb-immigration ballot measure included such prominent environmentalists as E.O. Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard biologist specializing in biodiversity; Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day; Dave Foreman, co-founder of EarthFirst!; and Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute.

Oberlink said the policy is not racist because “it’s the poor communities that suffer most from immigration.” He criticized Sierra Club leaders for “quashing this grass-roots effort” and accused them of confusing members with a second ballot measure.

Despite the defeat, advocates of restricted immigration said the Sierra Club debate would ultimately aid their cause.

“What will come of this is a new awareness of the connection between environment, population and immigration,” said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

“Opponents were playing the race card shamelessly,” Stein said, comparing them to opponents of Proposition 187.

Although the vote was an internal matter within the Sierra Club--whose membership is more liberal than the general population--pro-immigrant advocates hailed it as another indication that a robust economy has eased once-raging hostilities against the foreign-born.

“This always had much more to do with the future of the Sierra Club than the future of the immigration debate, but we’re obviously pleased that club members rejected this effort by anti-immigrant zealots to hijack a reputable organization,” said Frank Shary, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based group.

Eric Mar, director of the Northern California group of the Coalition for Immigrant Rights, called the landslide decision “a courageous vote,” and said it will serve to create more unity between the environmental movement and people of color.

Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this story.