“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.

Such suggestions typically elicit a shrug from anti-immigration advocates, who argue that immigration is the number-one culprit, and that without deep cuts, the environment will suffer. By way of explanation, Ben Zuckerman, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy who is on the anti-immigration slate running for the Sierra Club board, quotes the American Heritage Dictionary in defining an environmentalist as “a person who seeks to protect the natural environment, as from air and water pollution, wasteful use of resources, and excessive human encroachments.”

In recent days, Zuckerman's zest for debating the issue has been tempered by his concern that the Sierra Club administration is not giving the anti-immigration platform a fair shake. Club leaders have been campaigning openly against the initiative, and after Zuckerman and other supporters pounded the pavement to gather enough signatures to qualify the measure for the club ballot, club leadership automatically slapped back with a counterinitiative, known as “Alternative B.” Zuckerman claims that B landed on the ballot without so much as a phone call to anybody outside club headquarters.

But Beezley, who is coordinating the counterinitiative to definitively eliminate immigration from the club's agenda, says that even before the anti-immigration effort began in earnest, she had been working for years to get club chapters across the nation to agree to stay away from the isssue. Of the club's 60 chapters nationwide, 26 have signed on to her initiative. None have publicly agreed to back the anti-immigration stance.

Despite this apparent lack of support, there seem to be plenty of Sierra Club members who agree with Zuckerman's position. Unlike tightly controlled, top-down groups like Greenpeace, the Audubon Society and the Wilderness Society, where appointed board members run the show, the Sierra Club operates on a many-layered democratic model in which any member can seek office at any level of club management. To qualify for the ballot at the very highest level (the board of directors), an aspiring candidate needs simply to gain the support of one-twentieth of 1 percent of the members, or fewer than 300 signatures. An initiative, such as the anti-immigration one, lands on the ballot with 1,300 member signatures.

Along with Zuckerman, the anti-immigration slate includes another California academic – San Jose State mathematics professor John Mitchem – as well as an Episcopal priest from New Hampshire, an “asset adviser” from Minneapolis, an “ecosystem modeler” from Maryland, a Florida-based solar-energy research scientist, and a women's clinic president, also from Florida.

The initiative has been endorsed by several former Sierra Club directors, including Martin Litton, Brock Evans and EarthFirst! co-founder Dave Foreman. Current board members who support immigration control, such as Anne Ehrlich and David Brower, have agreed to remain silent on the initiative in order to present a united front, but Alan Weeden, chairman of the Sierra Club Foundation's board of trustees, is apparently not beholden to that agreement. He and his brothers have donated, in his words, a “substantial amount” of the estimated $118,000 cost of a mailer to all club members backing the anti-immigration initiative. In addition, his D.C.-based Weeden Foundation has funneled $25,000 to the seven anti-immigration candidates by way of another population-control organization.

Club president Adam Werbach, who has characterized the campaign as “the battle for the soul of the environmental movement” and even threatened to resign if the initiative wins, is now more circumspect. “If the initiative passes, it doesn't mean the Sierra Club works on immigration,” he says. “It just means we have to take a position on it. If it passes, then the battle would begin within the Sierra Club.”

Michael Fischer, a former Sierra Club executive director, believes it is a battle the club cannot afford to fight. In an e-mail message sent to club members in January, he said: “There is no way for institutions dominated by white upper- and middle-class members and staff to address this issue without appearing to be inequitably exclusionary, protective of their own status and self-interests, and, the worst case, racist.” Indeed, in a club that has never in its 100-plus-year history elected a Latino board member, perhaps it's not so much of a leap to imagine the initiative finding a receptive audience.

In any case, those who would end immigration, take note: Among the “vast hordes” threatening the well-being of America a century ago was a personage of some import – Sierra Club founder and native Scotsman John Muir.

LA Weekly