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Metropolis / Snapshots from the Center of the Universe

The Sierra Club and the Immigration Freight Train

June 09, 2002|JAMES RICCI

As an astronomer who studies how stars develop over tens of millions of years, Ben Zuckerman instinctively takes the long view. What he sees in regard to future U.S. population numbers troubles his environmentalist's heart: As many as a billion people on the American landscape by 2100, as many as 100 million in California, courtesy of liberal immigration policies.

Zuckerman, a 58-year-old UCLA professor given to running shoes and organic rice cakes, believes environmentalists should be loudly demanding curbs on legal immigration and an end to illegal immigration, which are fueling the country's surging population growth. The influential Sierra Club, to which he has belonged for more than three decades, ought to be especially vocal on the matter, he thinks.

Zuckerman's views conflict directly with the club's official neutrality on immigration reform. Nonetheless, he recently was elected to the club's board of directors with the most votes, 36,383, among the five successful candidates, despite not being anointed by the organization's nominating committee.

His victory, he says, is a vindication of keen-eyed Sierrans who see that "the No. 1 environmental problem--and it's not even close--is overpopulation. A billion Americans is a disaster. I don't know how my colleagues in the Sierra Club can save species and wetlands and so on when there are a billion Americans."

At the time of the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, with American fertility rates reaching replacement levels, environmentalists foresaw the U.S. population being stabilized within a single generation.

Then the immigration freight train came roaring down the track. By the time it barreled through the 1990s, it had quadrupled traditional figures for legal immigration, which has reached 1 million-plus per year. Illegal immigration is estimated to be an additional 200,000 to 500,000 annually. From 1990 to 2000, the U.S. population swelled by 13%, its largest 10-year increase ever (in the rest of the developed world, population grew by 2.5%). According to government demographers, immigration and immigrant fertility accounted for about 70% of the national increase, and 90% of California's.

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the Sierra Club supported immigration curbs. In the 1990s, however, the club's leadership grew shy of the issue as it waxed in controversy. In 1998, Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, a group co-founded by Zuckerman, forced a club referendum on the matter. The leadership pushed for neutrality, Zuckerman's faction for support of immigration curbs. The leadership's position won, but Zuckerman faction's received 40% of the vote.

Now the club's official posture is to focus on global, as opposed to U.S., population stabilization and to work for improved conditions in immigrant-producing countries.

What really motivates the club leadership, Zuckerman says, is fear. Fear of being called racist. Fear of losing minority-group members and fear of forfeiting financial support from big business and foundations.

Pro-immigration forces--including Latino politicians, the AFL-CIO and corporations, which covet both cheap labor and more consumers--are quick to swing the racism bludgeon. Zuckerman, a lifelong liberal and civil rights advocate, has borne such accusations painfully. "But the average person is overwhelmingly in favor of reduced legal immigration and an end to illegal immigration, and this cuts across every racial line," he says. "How can it be racist to agree with a majority of every ethnic and racial group in the country?"

The Sierra Club's timidity on the issue muddies its integrity. (How, he asks, can the club rail against polluters for breaking environmental laws but keep silent about immigrants who break immigration laws?) To save itself, he says, it must refocus on protecting the American environment and opposing growth for growth's sake, which he calls "the ideology of a cancer cell." Emboldened by Zuckerman's victory, more Sierrans of his persuasion are certain to run in next year's annual election for five of the 15 board seats.

The Sierra Club is headquartered in San Francisco. Presumedly, the people who run it have to commute every day through the congestion of the Bay Area. I have to wonder, do they ever ponder the discomfort of it? Do they really imagine, with residential development devouring space and wildlife habitat from San Diego to Sacramento, that natural California can survive the 50 million residents that demographers are projecting for 2025, much less the 100 million that could be living here by the end of the century if current patterns hold?

Bruce Hamilton, the Sierra Club's national conservation director, says the organization remains committed to its long-standing goal of population stabilization. It just takes a global approach now rather than a national one. Immigration to the U.S. will dwindle, the club believes, when conditions in immigrant-producing countries no longer compel people to leave home.

Or, I might point out, when conditions here become equally bad, the swollen masses just as poor, the environment just as degraded.

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