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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sierra Club: Tangling Itself in the Immigration Debate

Air Date: Week of

A faction in the nation's oldest environmental group, Sierra Club, argues that to protect the environment the US should keep its numbers down by limiting immigration, saying most of America's population growth comes from immigrants and their children. Others say that immigration pressures reflect the world's population problem. And since many immigrants today are Hispanics, the call to lock the gates to foreigners smacks of racism. The Sierra Club is holding a poll on the issue, but already more than a thousand members have walked out in protest. Deirdre Kennedy has more from San Francisco.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Behind much of the sprawl and loss of open space here in the US is a growing economy and a growing population. Some worry that if we keep having more and more children and developing more and more land, little will be left of the environment that attracted European settlers years ago. Most of our population growth comes from immigration. And now, among other groups, some members of the Sierra Club are calling for tight limits on immigration. Others say pressures on the US borders reflect the world's population problem, and since many immigrants today are Hispanic, some interpret the call to lock the gates as racist. The Sierra Club is taking a vote on the issue, and more than a thousand members have quit the group in protest. Deirdre Kennedy has more from San Francisco.

KENNEDY: For decades, environmentalists have warned that overpopulation is over-burdening the world's natural resources. Many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have actively supported global population control through family planning and education. But now, some club members are saying it's time to think globally, but act locally.

OBERLINK: Right now the US population is already the third largest in the world at 265 million. It's projected to hit 400 million by the middle of the next century.

KENNEDY: Ric Oberlink is a Sierra Club member and long-time advocate of population control.

OBERLINK: According to Census Bureau projections, over two-thirds of that growth is coming from immigrants and their descendants.

KENNEDY: According to Federal statistics, during the 1990s more than 5 million legal immigrants have moved to the United States, the highest number since the immigration peak at the beginning of this century. And the birth rate among immigrants is higher than among native-born Americans. Oberlink and others point out that Americans consume a disproportionate amount of the world's natural resources and produce more than 20% of its carbon dioxide pollution. So, they argue, more immigrants to the US means greater strain on the global environment, along with more congestion and environmental problems here at home. It's concerns like these that motivated Sierra Club member Dr. Alan Kuper to call for the club to back immigration limits.

KUPER: All this information is what must be out before the public, and it must come from the environmental movement, which has the credibility to talk about these limits.

KENNEDY: The Sierra Club is the nation's oldest environmental organization. So, Dr. Kuper argues, it could be especially influential on the issue of immigration. But, he says, tat influence is undermined by what he calls its current inconsistent position, which urges the Federal Government to stabilize US population but is silent on how to meet that goal. That's why the retired engineering professor from Cleveland gathered more than 2,000 signatures to put the issue before the club's membership. But the effort has drawn angry criticism from immigrant rights advocates. Some, like Ernaldo Garcia of the Urban Habitat Program in San Francisco, call it racist. Mr. Garcia says immigration limits almost always target poor people of color and rarely white- collar workers from industrialized nations. He agrees that Americans are draining the world's resources at an alarming rate. But, he says, targeting immigrants is disingenuous.

GARCIA: You can't compare, for example, the consumption patterns of a migrant farm worker to someone like ourselves that are maybe professional, you know, that are lawyers or doctors. Who's driving, who's taking the buses? Who's being exposed to pesticides? They say well, they're going to come here and they're going to become like us. And we don't want them to become like us. Well, maybe we should change. And that question isn't being addressed.

KENNEDY: The Sierra Club's top brass agree with this argument and have urged members to reject the anti-immigration initiative. Executive Director Carl Pope says immigration to the US pales next to the country's one-and-a- half million unplanned pregnancies a year. And he suggests that immigration to urban areas in the US, where most new residents go, may be preferable to some of the alternatives.

POPE: It's when people are moving into wild areas, either here in the United States or in the Peten Rainforest in Guatemala, or in Indonesia where tens of millions of people are moving from densely-populated islands like Java to areas like Borneo and Sumatra, which are some of the world's remaining reservoirs of biological diversity.

KENNEDY: More importantly, though, club leaders clearly want to avoid the divisive racial and class tensions of an anti-immigration stance. The club's board adopted a policy 2 years ago to remain neutral on the immigration issue, and coming out for immigration limits could threaten the club's newly-forged alliances with minority and immigrant groups. Sierra Club President Adam Werbach.

WERBACH: The Sierra Club has traditionally been a white organization. It has traditionally been suburban; it has traditionally been older and middle-aged. That's something that's been changing; we've been trying to change over the last years. And what people are now mis-perceiving about us is that we have turned around. We have now gone to a place that talks about environmentalism is nationalism, instead of talking about environmentalism is something that can actually bring us together.

KENNEDY: Even some prominent club members who are concerned about immigration don't think their organization should be taking on the issue. Anne Ehrlich is the co-author of several books on population and the environment, and a member of the Sierra Club's board.

EHRLICH: I think the Sierra Club, first of all, is not ready. There is no consensus within the club to deal with it. Therefore, it would not be appropriate for us to attempt to make out a policy until we do have that consensus.

KENNEDY: Backers of the immigration vote balk at the suggestion that it's negatively affecting the club. Dr. Alan Kuper says the members shouldn't shy away from the debate just because it's a political hot potato.

KUPER: The Sierra Club has made hard choices before, and we cannot think the way politicians do. They think short-term and they avoid hard choices, but hard choices not made now become much harder choices that must be made in the future.

KENNEDY: Of course, the real choices on immigration are ultimately up to politicians. But people on all sides agree that the Sierra Club's position will help color the debate. Members are voting this month and the club will announce its results in April. For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.



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