On April 25, Carlos Menendez posed in front of an audience of the press and the Sierra Club leadership and joined the club. The former executive director of EDGE, a now-defunct advocacy group for immigrants, had refused to become a member for years. But Sierra Club president Adam Werbach had just announced that members rejected an initiative that called for reduced immigration to the United States.
"I feel very proud to be a member
of an organization that has confronted such a divisive issue," said
Menendez. "(The initiative) made a mockery of environmental
The defeated initiative, Alternative A,
would have instructed the club to push for reduced immigration as a
way to retard U.S. population growth and its accompanying
environmental stress. It received 40 percent of the 78,069 mail-in
Alternative B was neutral on immigration
and directed the club to work on the root causes of global
population explosion, including access to birth control, economic
security, and equity for women. It received 60 percent of the vote.
As in other club elections, only about 15 percent of the membership
voted, despite the national publicity the issue
Nonetheless, the vote produced enough
bile to fill an open-pit mine and prompted both sides to dub it
"the fight for the soul of the Sierra Club." The dispute began in
1996, when a newly elected board of directors decided that the club
should not take a stance on the touchy subject of immigration. Some
members called the decision environmentally irresponsible and
Member Georgie Geyer wrote
that the board was "made up of new-style activists whose aim was
not to preserve the Yosemites of America ... but to placate Latino
and other ethnic groups who want essentially unlimited immigration.
... Their organized Latino allies meanwhile have their own agenda:
They want more members." Calling themselves Sierrans for U.S.
Population Stabilization (SUSPS), they circulated a petition for a
ballot initiative calling for tightly controlled
With half a million members, the
nation's largest environmental organization runs itself as a
multi-layered democracy. Members belong to a local chapter, but any
member can run for any level of office, national or local. To place
an initiative on the ballot, a member must collect signatures from
just 20 percent of the number of voters in the previous
By the summer of 1997, SUSPS had
gathered 1,300 signatures, enough to put the measure on the ballot,
with a disproportionate number from California. The group also ran
seven anti-immigration candidates for the board; none
Some club members began to view the club's
democratic approach, often touted as its greatest asset, as a
potential liability. In an e-mail to members, former executive
director Michael Fischer wrote: "There is no way for institutions
dominated by white upper- and middle-class members and staff to
address this issue without appearing to be inequitably
exclusionary, protective of their own status and self-interests,
and, in the worst case, racist."
In September, the board of directors decided
to offer its own initiative, Alternative B, reaffirming its
commitment to neutrality on the subject of immigration. Then the
mudslinging began. Advocates of Alternative A claimed that the club
management was trying to muddle and manipulate voters by preventing
a simple yes-no vote on Alternative A. Ric Oberlink, a 25-year club
member who left his position as executive director of Californians
for Population Stabilization to spearhead SUSPS, accused the club
of spending staff time fighting Alternative A and using club funds
to hire a public relations firm to promote its
Supporters of Alternative B
portrayed their opponents as outside agitators. The San
Francisco-based Political Ecology Group (PEG) documented a
connection between backers of Alternative A and anti-immigration
groups who have been known to advocate eugenics or race-based
population control. PEG found that the Federation of American
Immigration Reform, FAIR, the most prominent of these groups, had
been courting the Sierra Club since 1986. A member of FAIR's board
and a former Sierra Club officer, Alan Weeden, funneled more than
$100,000 to the pro-A campaign.
PEG also found
that Washington, D.C.-based Population-Environment Balance sent a
mass mailing to its members, urging them to join the club before
the Jan. 31 deadline in order to pack the vote in favor of
It is not surprising that
groups that oppose immigration for social or political reasons
would try to make common cause with environmentalists. At current
birth and immigration rates, the population of the U.S. will grow
by 125 million people in the next 50 years, putting additional
pressure on forests, rivers and wilderness.
club leaders tried to steer its members away from blaming
immigration, focusing instead on corporate polluters, middle-class
consumption levels, and the economic instability which forces
immigration to come to the U.S.
"While we are
arguing (about immigration), a flawed NAFTA drove 400,000 families
off their land in Mexico alone," said Sierra Club executive
director Carl Pope. "They do not want to join us. They do not want
to come here."
By last fall, more than 100 club
members had resigned over the controversy; 80 percent of them
opposed A. Both initiatives boasted impressive lists of supporters.
Biologist E.O. Wilson, Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman and
former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall signed onto Alternative A,
while Alternative B claimed the club's entire board of directors,
Zero Population Growth, the nation's most prominent environmental
justice groups and 27 individual Sierra Club chapters, including
chapters in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Arizona,
Washington and Nevada. No chapters endorsed A.
the press conference to announce the victory of Alternative B, a
reporter tried to get the Sierra Club president to concede that
immigration burdens the environment.
41 percent growth in California last year from other countries," he
said. "Shouldn't there be limits?"
smiled and said, "I have a clear directive from the Sierra Club on
how to answer that question. The Sierra Club does not take a
position." He looked visibly
"(Alternative A) was wrong," said
Werbach, who at one point had threatened to resign if it passed. "I
No supporter of immigration
limits was invited to speak. From the audience, however, Oberlink
let reporters know that he considers the fight far from finished.
He is planning to start a petition drive to put Alternative A on
next year's ballot as a yes or no vote. "It will be no problem to
qualify for the ballot," says Oberlink.
Udall, interviewed by phone, said he wasn't surprised at the
outcome. "It was a lively, useful debate," he said, "and I think it
Heather Abel, a former
intern and staff reporter for High Country News, lives in San