Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses

  • Adam Werbach, speaking, with Carlos Menendez, far right

    Heather Abel photo

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 issues."

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 votes.

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 attracted.

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 politically motivated.

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 borders.

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 election.

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 won.

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."

Mudslinging took over

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 alternative.

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 immigration curbs.

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.

But 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.

At 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.

"There was 41 percent growth in California last year from other countries," he said. "Shouldn't there be limits?"

Werbach 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 relieved.

"(Alternative A) was wrong," said Werbach, who at one point had threatened to resign if it passed. "I was terrified."

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.

Stewart Udall, interviewed by phone, said he wasn't surprised at the outcome. "It was a lively, useful debate," he said, "and I think it should continue."

Heather Abel, a former intern and staff reporter for High Country News, lives in San Francisco.