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Sierra Club to Take On Immigration Question

Population: Membership will vote on whether to seek stricter limits. Outcome could fracture old alliances.


In a departure from its usual fare of public lands, pollution and endangered species, the Sierra Club is about to enter a potentially divisive debate about immigration, the outcome of which could alter the way people think and talk about the issue.

Members of America's largest and most prestigious environmental organization will vote in March whether to reverse the club's neutral policy and endorse a drastic reduction in immigration as a way to slow U.S. population growth.

Approval of the measure, which will appear on the club's annual mail-in ballot, could help change the argument for cutting immigration, focusing on its effect on the environment as well as its economic and cultural impact. It also could set a precedent for other environmental groups, several of which are considering whether to adopt a position on immigration.

A resounding defeat, on the other hand, could put the brakes on an alliance between environmentalists and immigration opponents, which some fear would alienate minority communities and distract groups like the Sierra Club from traditional work, such as preserving wilderness areas.

"The battle of where they come out on immigration is of huge importance," said Brad Erickson, who directs the small San Francisco-based Political Ecology Group and has been critical of groups using environmental arguments to restrict immigration. "This is really going to be a litmus test for the broader environmental movement."

Anti-immigration groups have tried for years to pull mainstream environmentalists into their camp, using personal letters to high-level activists, ads in magazines and newsletters, conferences with environmental themes and research papers that appear to support their arguments.

Advocates of immigrants' rights contend that environmental groups should focus on wasteful U.S. consumption levels and work to reduce global population growth by improving opportunities for women and making birth control more accessible.

The Sierra Club and other large environmental groups have been reluctant to take a position on the issue, in part because their members are so divided.

"This is a very large and diverse club," said Carl Pope, executive director of the 550,000-member organization. "The environment is the only thing that unites us, and this is not really an environmental issue."

For more than a decade, however, restrictionists have argued that immigration is the ultimate environmental issue, feeding population growth that leads to traffic jams, polluted air, water shortages, encroachment on public lands, even the extinction of plants and animals.

"We cannot protect our environment if we don't stabilize our population," said Virginia Abernethy, a Vanderbilt University anthropologist and a high-profile proponent of an immigration moratorium.

Abernethy said the current, historically high level of legal immigration is driving the rate of U.S. population growth to unacceptable levels. (About 900,000 immigrants come to this country legally each year; the proposal going before Sierra Club members would support trimming that to about 200,000.) Immigrants and their children account for about 55% of U.S. population growth each year, and the share is growing, Abernethy said.

If not for immigration, Abernethy said, U.S. population rates would soon be stable.


Abernethy also is a director of the Washington, D.C.-based Population-Environment Balance, which tried twice in the past two years to form a coalition of environmental groups in favor of immigration restrictions. Both attempts failed to attract mainstream organizations, but they inspired other immigration opponents to make the connection.

"Until now, my focus has been on cultural and economic impacts," said Barbara Coe, a Huntington Beach anti-immigration activist who attended a conference sponsored by Population-Environment Balance in Colorado last month. "This is about to change."

Some Sierra Club members said they object to having even a tenuous link with groups such as Coe's California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which co-sponsored the 1994 anti-illegal immigration ballot initiative Proposition 187--an initiative opposed by the Sierra Club. Proposition 187, approved overwhelmingly by California voters but held up in federal court, would deny public benefits, including education and health care, to illegal immigrants.

Some club members also said they are uncomfortable with the groups making the environment-immigration connection.

The dominant voice among them is the Federation of American Immigration Reform, started in 1978 by John Tanton, a former Sierra Club executive director and former president of Zero Population Growth, who broke with both groups because they refused to take on immigration.

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