Long, long ago, in a decade that now seems far away, terrorists were a nonissue and illegal immigrants were the brown peril of choice, particularly in Pete Wilson’s California. In 1994, Californians voted into law Proposition 187, a measure to deny basic healthcare and educational access to undocumented immigrants, and a whole host of demagogues ran around blaming various social and economic woes on immigrants.
In 1998, anti-immigrant activists forced the Sierra Club to put a referendum on immigration on the annual membership ballot. Having been blamed for every other sin under the sun, immigrants were now to be scapegoated for our environmental problems as well. The club’s membership quickly voted the measure down.
But today the issue has returned, with anti-immigration activists attempting an openly hostile takeover of the Sierra Club. Three candidates for the March board elections are looking to form a majority with some of the more dubious current board members in an effort to take control of the organization and use the issue of overpopulation to push for far-reaching curbs on immigration.
The three are Frank Morris, David Pimentel and Richard Lamm, all of whom have links to the anti-immigration Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America. Lamm, the former Colorado governor, is also a longtime board member of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which gets funding from the pro-eugenics and “race betterment” Pioneer Fund.
These three outsiders seem to have become Sierra Club members specifically to stage their takeover, and they’re actively encouraging members of other anti-immigration groups to join and help elect them. Do they even remember that the Sierra Club’s name is half Spanish because California used to be Mexican territory?
Eleven past presidents of the club have opposed the coup, saying the crisis “can well be fatal, destroying the vision of John Muir and the work and contributions of hundreds of thousands of volunteer activists.” (Of course, Scottish immigrant Muir was a racist too -- he said some pretty astounding things about Native Americans -- but that’s another story, and era.)
Some progressives have already written off the 112-year-old, 750,000-member Sierra Club because, they believe, it has traditionally been too quick to compromise its principles. But the Sierra Club remains what it has been for so many decades: the flagship of the environmental movement, dealing with everything from clear-cutting and global warming to endangered species and water pollution. If it is discredited and disempowered, so will be much of the movement.
The takeover of the Sierra Club will succeed only if the insurgents convince people that the border marks a coherent environmental divide and that the U.S. is, or can be, a place apart. But that’s wrong, because borders don’t exist in nature.
During the 1990s, the border was always talked about as though it was a tangible landform, a divinely ordained division. When I spent a couple of weeks on the Rio Grande in 1998, however, I realized that in most senses the border is a fiction.
As our raft floated downstream, Mexico was the stark expanse to the right, the United States the bleak expanse to the left, and crossing songbirds and cattle seemed indifferent to the idea that the Chihuahuan desert was really two countries. The toxins from American agriculture and Juarez maquiladoras mixed indiscriminately in the slow, brown river, even as plant and animal life clustered and bloomed on its banks.
The argument the insurgents are making is, of course, that immigrants are bad for the American environment because they will swell the population. But really, we don’t need help being bad for the environment.
The U.S. consumes the world’s resources in huge disproportion to its percentage of the global population, and most of us work overtime to do our bit for global warming. (The last time the immigration issue roiled the Sierra Club’s waters, my mother exclaimed to me: “But what if they come here and live like us?” To which the only possible reply was: “What if we stay here and live like us?”)
The poor, nonwhite immigrants who are the real targets of this campaign generally build and clean America’s big houses; they mow the lawns and fuel up the snowmobiles. But they tend not to own them, or to make the decisions to de-list an endangered species, or de-fund the Superfund cleanup program, or lower emissions standards. (We elect people to do that, actually.)
Into the 1960s, the Sierra Club’s basic strategy was to set places apart. The club fought a nuclear power plant in California’s Nipomo Dunes, for example, but agreed it was OK to put one in Diablo Canyon instead.
Back then, Rachel Carson had only recently brought us the bad news about pesticides -- that they didn’t stay put but moved through the environment into both wild places and our own bodies, and with that it began to become clear that you couldn’t just defend places. You had to address practices; you had to understand that, in Muir’s famous aphorism, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
More and more things come under the purview of environmentalism these days, from what we eat to where our chemicals end up. Immigration, unless it’s part of a larger conversation about consumption, birthrates, reproductive rights, agriculture, international economic policy and trade, sprawl and dozens of other issues, isn’t really one of them.
It seems instead that environmentalism is a cloak of virtue in which anti-immigration activists are attempting to wrap themselves. But they’re better looked at naked.
Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book is “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West” (Viking Press, 2003). A longer version of this article appears at www.tomdispatch.com.