Birth Control or Border Patrol? the Sierra Club Votes Down an Immigration Initiative

Article excerpt

There are few issues more politically charged than immigration policy, so its 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. …