The Sierra Club has become ground zero for a furious debate over
America's immigration policy. The environmental group has mailed ballots
to its 550,000 members asking whether the club's board should continue
its take-no-polition stance on immigration or call for a reduction in the
numbers. If the environmental movement decides to throw its powerful
support behind proposals to scale back immigration, fasten your seat belts.
The US Census projects that the American population, now 269 million, will reach 400 million by 2050. The main reasons are the large numbers of immigrants entering the United States (1.2 million a year) and the high birth rates among immigrant women. Dissident Sierra Club members assert that any environmental gains will be swamped by the population growth.
The Sierra Club leadership has always given lip service to its concern over population. "Make no mistake," said Executive Director Carl Pope, "overpopulation is, without question, a fundamental cause of the world's ills." But, he adds, "These are fundamentally global problems; immigration is merely a local symptom."
Club leaders are terrified that by backing a reduction in immigration, they will be called bad names. If the Sierra Club comes out in favor of lower immigration levels, Pope says, "we would be perceived as assisting people whose motivations are racist."
But the job of leaders is to articulate their organization's policies. If their motives are not racist, they should fight attempts to label them as such. Without a doubt, the club would come under fire from some Asian and Latino activists. So be it.
And if Pope can't do his job, some new blood should take over. (Pope can put out the Sierra Club's lovely calendars.) New leaders might note that America's immigrants are overwhelmingly fine, hardworking people. And newcomers are every bit as good as European immigrants who came before them. They will add, however, that the current immigration numbers are just devastating for our nation's environmental future. They want to preserve a beautiful America not only for their children but for the children of today's immigrants.
The new blood might also point out the unattractive motivations of many supporters of high immigration. The cheap-labor conservatives, for example, will do most anything to beat down wages by keeping up the inflow of low-skilled immigrants. Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan, who now leads the Republican Party on immigration issues, strongly supports high immigration levels. However, he also backs legislation that denies immigrants welfare benefits available to other taxpayers. And he has argued that wage cuts caused by immigration are good because they force poor Americans to stay in school! Does Pope want to be "perceived" as assisting people with that mind-set?
Indeed, the gap between low-income and high-income Americans continues to widen. Honest research attributes this troubling trend to a number of factors, but increased competition for low-level jobs often tops the list. Immigrants understand this. That's why a sizable majority of Latino Americans (if not their ethnic "leaders") backs reduced immigration.
Many Sierra Club members like Alan Kuper of Cleveland characterize the board's arguments for sidestepping the immigration issue as "a form of denial," The extent of the denial, and contortions that some will make to avoid the painful issue, were evident in a recent column in The New York Times. The author, Bill McKibben, is a prominent environmentalist who calls for single-child familes. "If we're not willing to reduce the size of our families or the size of our sport-utility vehicles, then cutting immigration is piggish scapegoating," he writes in a crashing non-sequitur.
Actually, it would be a very good thing if Americans could learn to tread more lightly on Mother Earth. However, a California with 18 million more people by 2035 - the Census Bureau's projection - will be a less pleasant place, even if they're all driving Geo Metros.
Copyright 1998, Froma Harrop
Reprinted with permission