By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A few weeks earlier, in a highly critical syndicated column, Alexander Cockburn accused the club of "immigrant bashing" and "apocalyptic hysteria" — a "middle-class do-gooder movement paddling in the most polluted waters of American political life." Werbach was incensed. "He’s a butt," Werbach says. "He did a lot of damage."
The impetus for Cockburn’s diatribe was a club initiative, to be voted on by the membership in February, asking whether the club should "adopt a comprehensive population policy for the United States that [advocates] an end to U.S. population growth . . . through reduction in net immigration." Since just 1,300 signatures were needed to qualify the initiative for the club ballot, Werbach has tried to portray the anti-immigration push as a fringe effort by a small faction of members somewhere in Ohio.
On this fall morning, he’s about to learn otherwise. There’s a sharp rapping at the door, followed by the ap pearance of a youngish woman with a furrowed brow. And a slightly desperate plea. "Adam, can you please come here?" Werbach hurries off to handle the crisis: The much-loathed immigration petition has just been signed by David Brower.
For the next 20 minutes Werbach parleys with Brower on the phone, eventually persuading him to drop his support for the proposal. But Brower’s fleeting endorsement hints at a depth of dispute most club leaders would rather ignore.
The anti-immigration effort is being led by Alan Kuper, a retired engineering professor who is Population-Environment Committee chair of the club’s Ohio chapter. At root, Kuper says, the initiative addresses concerns about a population that is growing too fast to be adequately sustained by the Earth’s resources.
But Werbach and other club leaders argue that restricting immigration is attacking a symptom, not a cause. That such quotas won’t end the human-rights abuses and economic inequities around the globe that drive people to America in the first place. That immigrants who move to America tend to have smaller families than they would in their native lands. That such restrictions won’t end pollution of air, water and soil, nor will they dampen U.S.-driven consumerist depletion of natural resources worldwide (with 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes a quarter of the world’s energy). Opposing immigration, Werbach believes, would cripple efforts to broaden the club’s appeal and cause serious and possibly irreparable political damage.
Some club leaders disagree. Dave Foreman, the EarthFirst! co-founder who served on the Sierra Club board until September, once suggested that Ethiopians wracked by famine should be left to die to help reduce the global population. His name appears on the anti-immigration argument in this month’s issue of Sierramagazine.
Board member Anne Ehrlich, who with her husband, Paul, wrote the apocalyptic Population Bomb in 1968, initially signed the anti-immigration petition and allowed her name to be used on its mailings. She later removed her name from the petition, at Werbach’s request.
But, she says, "Everybody in the club knows I would focus energy on immigration if the majority of the members wanted it." The answer to that "if" will come in mid-April, when the votes from the members are tallied. For now, she says, "If I feel pushed to work on immigration, I can do it somewhere else."
And she does, as an advisory board member at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a Washington, D.C.–based group that has accepted money from the Pioneer Fund, which supports study into Nazi-style eugenics.
FAIR is headed by John Tanton, a former Sierra Club member who also heads an English-only organization. He caused a ruckus in the mid-1980s when an internal memo was released in which he referred to "the Latin onslaught" and asked, "Is advice to limit one’s family simply advice to move over and let someone else with greater reproductive powers occupy the space?" In one prescient passage, Tanton predicted, "The Sierra Club may not want to touch the immigration issue, but the immigration issue is going to touch the Sierra Club!"
Another group pressing its agenda on the club is the Washington, D.C.–based Population-Environment Balance, which has tried twice in the past two years to pressure environmental groups into joining an anti-immigration coalition. Last fall, the group picketed Werbach during an appearance in Santa Barbara, calling him a "traitor" and a "sellout."
Werbach calls the issue "the most divisive battle in my experience." It is, he says, the embodiment of the "battle for the soul of the environmental movement that is going on right now." A victory for the initiative would destroy his efforts to promote an inclusive, human-oriented movement, as well as his faith in the club. If it passes, he vows he will quit.
Some club members say it is a battle that would not have existed had someone else been in charge. A more experienced leader would have been able to quell the dissension within the club, preventing the very public airing that results from a vote of the membership. "It’s one thing to have an aura of ability to communicate," says board member Tony Ruckel. "It’s another to have the skill to deal effectively with people who are fiercely independent and often fractious."