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
"No nation in human history ever undertook to deal with such masses of alien population," declared the Atlantic Monthly, blaming immigration for the debased standard of living of many Americans, and warning that further admittance of the "vast hordes" could destroy the soil, the land, the very air Americans breathe.
"That man must be a sentimentalist and an optimist beyond all bounds of reason who believes that we can take such a load upon the national stomach without a failure of assimilation," the writer continued, "and without great danger to the health and life of the nation."
So wrote Francis A. Walker - in June of 1896. Needless to say, the nation survived and ultimately flourished in the wake of massive waves of immigration that continued for the next two decades. A century later, as immigration levels have again climbed to historic highs, the immigrant has again become the whipping boy for every hard-to-handle social ill - from crime to poor education to unemployment. And, now, the destruction of the environment.
While population control has long been a tenet of mainstream environmentalism (fewer people, less stress on the Earth's finite resources), the specter of xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment now threatens to swallow the Green movement whole.
Nowhere is this more evident than within the Sierra Club, one of the nation's oldest, largest and - at least until now - most progressive mainstream environmental groups. Next week, each of its 550,000 members will receive a mail-in ballot asking whether the club should "adopt a comprehensive population policy" that advocates "an end to U.S. population growth . . . through reduction in net immigration." In addition, club members will be asked to choose among a record 22 candidates vying for five seats on the club's board of directors. Seven are running on an anti-immigration slate. "If we fail to stabilize population," writes one candidate in his statement to voters, "our victories on public lands and forests will be swept away by human demands."
Behind this apocalyptic language is a well-funded, highly organized effort to put the club, and by proxy the environmental movement at large, in the vanguard of efforts to vilify immigrants and all but shut down America's borders.
It's a prospect that has progressive environmental groups across the state and the nation in a panic. "The Sierra Club is poised to commit suicide over the immigration issue," Sam Schuchat, executive director of the California League of Conservation Voters, told the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club at a recent meeting. "If you adopt this bad position on immigration, it will affect us all and undo years of hard work."
For months, a handful of anti-immigration groups, including Negative Population Growth, Californians for Population Stabilization and the San Fernando Valley's Voice of Citizens Together, have been laying the groundwork, sending out lengthy mailers and encouraging their own members to join the Sierra Club in time to vote, leafleting Sierra Club meetings or directly targeting club members.
Population-Environment Balance, a Washington, D.C.-based group, sent a mailer to its 10,000 newsletter recipients declaring, "Population growth is the root cause of America's environmental problems." The organization is calling for a cutback of legal immigration for the next five years from 900,000 to 100,000 people per year, and 200,000 a year after that. The mailer also listed the Sierra Club's phone number and e-mail address, and reminded readers that "you must be a member by January 31 to vote" on the club's anti-immigration initiative.
"Anti-immigration folks view the Sierra Club as the big prize," says club member Julie Beezley, who opposes the initiative and has helped build considerable support for a countermeasure among club chapters across the nation. "Beyond that, they really aren't interested in what the club stands for."
The argument of those opposed to immigration generally goes like this: The U.S. is one of the fastest-growing countries in the industrialized world, having grown from 150 million people in 1950 to 267 million people in 1997. Although the fertility rate in the U.S. today is just 2.0 (meaning that couples having children are simply replacing themselves), there is concern that this rate will increase, largely because many immigrants come from countries where it is customary to have more than two children. If immigrants are allowed to continue to come to this country, and to have children here, it won't be long before all our resources will be used up. By 2050, claims one Population-Environment Balance tract, "The variety of food will be so diminished that most Americans will be unable to have their typical Thanksgiving Day feast!"
Of course, this analysis ignores certain elemental parts of the picture - like the non-immigrant-driven baby boom of the late 1950s and early '60s, when immigration rates were just a fraction of what they are today - as well as essential parts of the solution that are less politically expedient and harder to implement. For instance, access to birth control and abortion for the 500,000 American teenagers who become pregnant each year. Or taking steps to reduce U.S. consumerism (Americans make up 5 percent of the world's population but consume a quarter of its energy). After all, it is two-car, four-bedroom-per-four-person-household suburban sprawl that gobbles environmental resources, not the close-quartered, public-transportation-reliant urban existence of most recent immigrants.