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Sierra Club to Remain Neutral on Immigration

April 26, 1998|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Sweeping aside a campaign that polarized environmentalists and prompted international cries of racism, members of the nation's most powerful environmental group overwhelmingly voted to retain their neutral stance on immigration, the Sierra Club announced Saturday.

In a landslide victory for the Sierra Club's leaders, 60.1% of voting members favored neutrality on the nation's immigration policies, while 39.2% supported a measure calling for stricter curbs.

Though the vote has little or no impact on U.S. immigration policy, the campaign spurred a historic round of soul-searching for the environmental movement, which has wrestled with neutrality on an explosive issue that so clearly divides Americans, especially in California.

Some environmentalists view immigration's impact on population growth in the United States as a root cause of the world's worries about pollution and destruction of natural resources. But others, including the Sierra Club's top leaders, say curbing U.S. immigration does nothing to solve the Earth's environmental troubles or overpopulation, and alienates people of color.

If the first group's measure had passed, the world's largest and most influential environmental group would have taken a stance that seemingly blames immigrants for America's pollution, sprawl and other environmental problems. Many critics called the ballot campaign racist and elitist--the "greening of hate"--and it bitterly divided the group's members.

"We cannot protect our environment by putting a wall around our borders," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "Birth control, not border patrols, is the common sense solution to over-population."

Supporters of the curb immigration campaign, who were disappointed but not surprised, vowed Saturday to try again next year.

"Today is a loss for the environment and a victory for the pro-growth forces," said Rick Oberlink, a Berkeley lawyer who is one of the leaders of the campaign. "The environment arguments were overwhelmingly on our side."

The 15% turnout--nearly 85,000 votes cast out of the membership of 550,000--was the largest in a decade in the Sierra Club's internal mail-in elections, which are held annually. Ballots were mailed to members in March.

Sierra Club President Adam Werbach said it was the most extensively debated policy issue in the group's history--more so than its stances on such controversies as nuclear power, global warming and deforestation.

Werbach and other Sierra Club leaders said a vote in favor of curbing immigration would have crippled the group's recent efforts to reach out to minorities in the United States, who suffer a disproportionate burden from water and air pollution.

A Membership Divided

The Sierra Club in the past few years has tried to branch out from its reputation for building hiking trails and protecting open space and has pushed to safeguard people from urban pollution.

"The membership has told the Sierra Club that we should not be involved in immigration policy," Werbach said. "There is no place in the Sierra Club for blaming immigrants for environmental problems."

Sierra Club leaders said the anti-immigration campaign not only polarized the membership but tarnished the group's international reputation and wasted the group's time and resources on an issue on which it has little expertise or clout.

They worried that it would undermine the group's efforts to deal with global overpopulation and damage to wildlife and forests in other countries, especially Mexico, because people there are now wary of the Sierra Club. The International Herald Tribune described it as a "vote on whether immigrants should be viewed as a form of toxic waste." The group's leaders were clearly relieved that the measure failed by more than a slim margin.

"I was terrified," said Werbach, who had threatened to resign if the proposal passed.

The measure to advocate a "reduction in net immigration" was added to the ballot by a renegade group of members who obtained more than 1,200 signatures on a petition. In response, the group's leadership added a countermeasure that reaffirmed the club's neutrality on the issue.

The Sierra Club vote was in stark contrast to the vote in California four years ago that overwhelmingly supported Proposition 187, which restricted benefits to illegal immigrants. It was adopted by a 59% to 41% vote--nearly the opposite of the Sierra Club tally.

If Sierra Club members had supported immigration curbs, they would have been teaming up with the California Republican Party and Gov. Pete Wilson--an unusual alliance for environmental activists.

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