Birth Control or Border Patrol?

The Sierra Club Votes Down an Immigration Initiative

There are few issues more politically charged than immigration policy, so it’s hardly surprising that voices were raised and names were called when the Sierra Club debated the subject last spring. At issue was a ballot initiative proposed by an insurgent group within the club, Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, that would have called for a “reduction in net immigration.” In April, the initiative, “Alternative A,” lost by a margin of 20 percent in what Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope called “a resounding defeat for a misguided policy.” Pointing to the 1.5 million unplanned births that occur annually in the U.S., he saw the results as an endorsement of “birth control, not border patrols.”

The roots of the controversy are deeply buried, but they came to the surface with a 1996 Sierra Club board of directors vote to “take no position on immigration levels,” reversing an earlier stand that committed the club to “lend[ing] its voice to the congressional debate on legal immigration levels when appropriate.” Dr. Alan Kuper, a 25-year Sierra Club member based in Ohio, says he organized the initiative to restore the club’s “historic position in favor of limiting immigration.”

Dr. Kuper’s arguments in favor of the initiative are based on the simple proposition that population growth harms the environment, and that immigration must be addressed because it is a major factor in that growth. “We’re talking about doubling the U.S. population in less than 70 years, with 80 percent of that growth due to immigrants and their descendants,” he says. “That should give anyone pause. You could argue that the whole reason we needed an environmental movement in the first place was because of the doubling that has occurred since World War II. There wasn’t a single 1,000-megawatt power plant in the country back then, and we weren’t talking about smog in L.A. It’s all about population and numbers.”

Dr. Kuper says he thought Alternative A “would pass 52-48, something like that,” and as a reason for his optimism, he cites the support it got from “environmental heavyweights” like the Worldwatch Institute’s Lester Brown, Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Paul Watson, Harvard’s Dr. E.O. Wilson and Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman. Dr. Kuper blames the defeat on “the race card that got played really heavily.” And that’s where the name-calling comes in.

The debate over the initiative soon grew beyond the Sierra Club, with population groups on both sides of the issue weighing in with mailings to members (and to environmental journalists). The Sierra Club itself, which lobbied heavily against the ballot measure, claimed that “closing America’s borders does nothing to lower the number of people consuming the planet’s resources.” In a mailing, the club said that some advocates of Alternative A “are extremists acting from racial prejudice.” After citing KKK leader David Duke (who attacks immigration on his web page), the mailing zeroed in on the real target: Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Stein’s has been probably the loudest voice making the environment/immigration connection, and he’s become a lightning rod for criticism, with direct attacks from both the Sierra Club and the mainstream group Zero Population Growth (ZPG).

John Seager, policy director at ZPG (which also declines to get specific about immigration targets), calls FAIR “just reprehensible. For them, it’s not really about population, but about something else.” Seager cites a FAIR mailing blaming immigrants for “contagious disease, violent crime and international terrorism.”

FAIR’s biggest critic is the San Francisco-based Political Ecology Group (PEG), which campaigns for immigrants’ rights. Several PEG board members serve on the Sierra Club’s national population committee. In a lengthy report, PEG tied Alternative A supporters to eugenics, white supremacy and other extremist causes. FAIR, described as “the largest anti-immigration organization in the U.S.,” is cited for having accepted more than $1 million since 1982 from The Pioneer Fund, which the report implies is a neo-Nazi organization founded by eugenicists. Other organizations attacked in the report include Negative Population Growth, Carrying Capacity Network, Population-Environment Balance and the Social Contract Press (headed by anti-immigration author Roy Beck).

“It’s typical name-calling,” says FAIR’s K.C. McAlpin. “We’re used to it. You can shut off debate by calling people and organizations racist, nativist and xenophobic.” McAlpin denies the group has racist intent, and points to a 1996 Tomas Rivera Center study of Hispanic-American citizens that found 59 percent of them supporting curbs on immigration (largely out of fear that future immigrants will take existing jobs).

But FAIR’s Stein, an enthusiastic proponent of 18th century doomsayer Thomas Malthus, doesn’t do himself any favors by being fairly loose-lipped. He accused some immigrant groups of engaging in “competitive breeding.” He’s also said that some immigrants “hate America” and “hate everything that America stands for.”

With such hot rhetoric, it’s not surprising that serious debate about the real impact of immigration on the environment got lost. But some closed-border advocates stick closely to the numbers and the environmental threats they pose. U.S. population growth has equaled India’s since 1945, they say, despite below-replacement-level fertility rates among native-born Americans. The Carrying Capacity Network charges that, because of our burgeoning population, “The U.S. paves over an area equal to the state of Delaware every year, and will lose 120 million acres of farmland in the next 60 years.” The group offers a simple equation: For every new American, an acre of natural habitat or farmland is paved over.

For its part, the Sierra Club agrees that population growth is a serious problem, and is devoting resources to it—in a broad, global context focused on women’s empowerment and international family planning. “We can talk about making national boundaries the framework for a policy dialogue, but that’s a political question, not an environmental one,” says Pope. “And if it’s political, why should the club be involved in it? Many of our chapter leaders are upset that outside groups got involved in our internal process, and we’re going to try and minimize that in the future.”

The open wounds caused by the Sierra Club immigration debate won’t soon heal. As ZPG’s Seager puts it, “Immigration is a very divisive issue. The one constant is we always argue about it.”