Divided We Fall?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, July 1998


Divided We Fall?
The Sierra Club's debate over immigration may be just the beginning
By Dirk Olin

When it was finally announced that the Sierra Club's rank and file had scuttled a proposal to support new restrictions on U.S. immigration, the organization's leaders positively jumped for joy. "I'm very relieved," said former club president Adam Werbach, 25, who had called the measure "horrendous" and pledged to resign from the board if it was approved. "The Sierra Club should not be blaming immigrants for environmental problems." Despite his relief, though, Werbach admitted to feeling unsettled by the fact that his views were criticized by his most trusted ally, David Brower, the club's erstwhile executive director. "The leadership are fooling themselves," barked Brower, 86. "Overpopulation is a very serious problem, and overimmigration is a big part of it. We must address both. We can't ignore either."

Sierra Club policy disputes are often hard-fought, but the immigration debate that came to a head with April's referendum was one of the most divisive that the Sierrans have ever confronted. The battle was sparked by Alan Kuper, a retired professor, whose proposal to rescind the club's neutrality on immigration was tantamount to pulling the pin on a political hand grenade: Any outcome would involve collateral damage. Werbach and others feared that a victory for Kuper's measure (which was defeated 60 percent to 40) would repel financial backers and anger club members who equate calls for immigration control with xenophobia and racism. But remaining neutral carries a price, too, laying the club open to charges that it is ignoring environmental realities because it is terrified of weakening its support base.

Such concern is well founded. Like many other green groups, the Sierra Club is plagued by the perception that it is mainly white and middle-class (indeed, minorities constitute only 7 percent of its membership), thus making discussions of immigration highly sensitive — especially because so many new arrivals today come from Mexico. But critics now say that the club is refusing to grapple with data suggesting that curbs on both fertility rates and immigration may be necessary for the United States to protect its environment. According to the Census Bureau, the country adds about 2.5 million people annually, one of the fastest growth rates in the industrialized world. Over the next 50 years, the bulk of that growth will continue to be fueled by the roughly 800,000 legal and 275,000 illegal immigrants who pour into the country each year. Moreover, the new citizens join a nation of voracious consumerism that contributes more to world pollution than any other. "Environmentalists are sticking their heads in the sand, believing that recycling or energy alternatives will let us ignore population," says Leon Kolankiewicz of the Carrying Capacity Network in Washington D.C.

Meanwhile, immigration control continues to draw support from environmentalists outside the club, such as Gaylord Nelson, counselor to The Wilderness Society, and Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute. Other green organizations, such as the National Wildlife Federation, have largely skirted the debate. Yet as Pat Waak of the National Audubon Society concedes, environmentalists can't avoid the issue forever. "A lot of good people out there are genuinely concerned about immigration," she says. "A dialogue will have to take place sooner or later."

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

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