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Green Reprieve 

Sierra Club dodges immigration-ballot bullet

Wednesday, Apr 29 1998
When the leaders of the Sierra Club summoned the media to their San Francisco headquarters last weekend to trumpet the failure of an anti-immigration insurgency, they timed the gathering for maximum effect. A Saturday announcement, they knew, would be splashed across the front pages of the Sunday papers, spreading the word that the forces pushing for drastic curbs on U.S. immigration had been summarily quashed.

It had been an exhausting battle for the club, consuming many hours of staff and volunteer time, along with donated newspaper ads and numerous radio and cable-television talk-show appearances by club executive director Carl Pope and president Adam Werbach. All to defend the club's official stance of no position on immigration (they argue that immigration is not primarily an environmental issue) and to promote the alternative: curbing global population by encouraging birth control.

The battle was launched after some dissident members gathered the 1,500 signatures required to put the issue before all 550,000 Sierra Club members. If immigration to the U.S. is not severely curbed, supporters of the measure argued, somewhat apocalyptically, Americans will be left without the basic resources necessary for survival. It is the duty of the club, they said, to stanch the flow of immigrants now, so that those of us already here can fully enjoy the riches of this great land. The best way to help those poor, impoverished souls clamoring for entry is to tell them to sit tight and make the best of what they have at home. Last weekend, the club was happy - make that thrilled - to report the defeat of what Pope termed "this misguided policy."

More broadly, the leaders of the nation's largest and most influential environmental group rejoiced at having deflected a policy initiative that, at its core, contradicts what it means to be a member of this inclusive, immigrant-driven society. "The Sierra Club is coming out of this debate stronger than before," Pope said in a news release issued on Saturday. "Now we can return to protecting the environment with renewed vigor and strengthened coalitions."

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But the victory was not so resounding as club leaders would like us to think.

Based on phone calls and e-mail he received on Sunday and Monday, Pope has decided that, aside from a small group of fervent supporters, the vast majority of the 31,000 members who voted for a stringent curb on immigration don't have strong feelings on the issue. "The support for this, rather than growing, will diminish," he predicts. Pope and other club leaders may be premature in dismissing the 40 percent of voting members (15 percent of all members cast ballots - the strongest turnout in a decade) who sided with the insurgents to slash immigration.

Ben Zuckerman, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy and one of the leaders of the anti-immigration movement within the club, says that plans are already in the works to put the issue back on the ballot next year, and every year after that until it passes. During the Sierra Club campaign, the anti-immigration advocates received support from several population-control groups, including Population-Environment Balance and Negative Population Growth. "The people who support our view are the real environmentalists," Zuckerman says. "We have no intention of leaving the club or backing down."

Such enduring internal division only serves to validate the oft-expressed concern that in its quest to be big (in recent decades club membership has increased tenfold), the Sierra Club has lost its cohesiveness and, to some degree, its effectiveness. In the old days, club members were recruited by other club members - when they joined they already felt bonded to the club. Nowadays those who join are likely to be drawn in by direct-mail advertising, and though they pay their annual dues, often "they consider themselves supporters, rather than members," Pope says.

The narrow decision on the divisive immigration issue highlights why the Sierra Club in this current form is too fragile to tackle any issue that might cause a ruckus. "We need to take positions that unite us," Pope says, "not those that divide us." Thus immigration is relegated to the same heap as the merits of vegetarianism and the great diaper debate (cloth vs. plastic), both issues on which the club has decided to take no position because members are divided.

In announcing their no-position-on-immigration victory, club leaders all but ignored the fact that environmental icon David Brower was the top vote-getter in a field of 22 candidates vying for five open seats on the club's board. Although Brower was running as an incumbent, his fellow board members did not endorse him. Brower, whose history within the club is long and tangled, bucks the party line on immigration. He does not exactly back those who advocate strict curbs either. Instead, he views immigration to the United States as an integral part of the population puzzle, one best addressed not by shutting down borders, which he calls "war tactics," but by an approach that is as unsexy as it is difficult. "What's happening now is that we are causing this immigration," he said. "Many people come here to share the loot we stole from them. We need dramatically improved aid to help build communities in countries we have exploited."

Now that the election is over, Pope and other club leaders have expressed their eagerness to get back to some of the pressing environmental concerns they were compelled to neglect during the immigration debate. High on the list are issues of environmental justice in poor, frequently minority-dominated communities. As a result of this election, the club has sustained the number of nonwhites serving on its board of directors at two (both are African-American - the club has never had a Latino board member). But no matter how much club leaders wish to make it so, until they present a vision that ventures beyond forced consensus it's hard to believe that the immigration debate will simply give way.

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