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A battle over immigration
Controversy in the Sierra Club

By Justin Akers | April 9, 2004 | Page 6

THE ENVIRONMENTAL group The Sierra Club is facing a raucous showdown over upcoming elections in April. At stake are five of the 15 seats on the board of directors--and the future direction of the 750,000-member organization. At the center of the controversy is a self-described "insurgency faction" that includes a shadowy clique of right-wing opponents of immigration, along with some progressive independents.

The elections have polarized the organization between an "old guard" leadership--which has led the group to be more moderate and oriented on lobbying--and the challengers who present themselves as a more militant and committed alternative. The criticism of the Sierra Club leadership's passivity strikes a chord with members who want to see more action to stop environmental devastation.

But it is the issue of immigration that has become the key fault line. Immigration has always been a contentious issue within the group. Since the 1960s, a section of the Sierra Club has maintained that "loose" immigration policies and unsustainable population growth have been a central cause of environmental problems, especially among Third World peoples.

In 1996, the organization officially adopted a policy of neutrality on the issue. Following this, the anti-immigration wing reorganized itself under the name "Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization" (SUSPS) and began pushing to get its candidates on the Sierra Club board.

The organized right is up to its necks in this "insurgency." By shifting the blame from capitalist globalization and first-world plunderers to the "invading hordes" of Third World immigrants, the far right is promoting its own racist conclusions for environmental preservation--a campaign of forced sterilization and aggressive distribution of contraception in the Third World, while choking off immigration at home.

Among the challengers are three candidates backed by the SUSPS who come directly out of virulent anti-immigrant organizations and right-wing think tanks such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America, and the Center for Immigration Studies.

A host of "grassroots" racist organizations have rallied behind the campaign, promoting the SUSPS as a way to maintain an "Americanized" vision of environmentalism. One SUSPS supporter and ideologue, Brenda Walker, posted her appeals on an openly racist Web site. In a column about Hmong immigrants on the site, Walker wrote, "So will thousands of drug-addicted polygamists be welcomed into America in another escalation of multiculturalism against American values?"

Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center has called this fusion of racist agitation cloaked in the mantle of environmentalism "the greening of hate." The Sierra Club's national leadership has rightly opposed the racism of the SUSPS in the run-up to the election. But rather than focus on opposing racism, it has portrayed the conflict as a matter of "insiders" vs. "outsiders."

Club leaders have attacked independent candidates who are critical of the SUSPS--using the same "McCarthy-like" tactics, wrote one candidate for the board, Karyn Strickler, who was criticized as "pro-marijuana" for having a tenuous connection to the legalization group HempUSA. This can only help the right drum up more support.

But independent candidates like Strickler who say they oppose the anti-immigration right, have compromised themselves by not wholly rejecting the right wingers. "Immigration control advocates currently on the board are some of the people most consistently voting for strong, environmental protection," Strickler writes.

This gives a cover for racist views to spread further in the environmental movement. The controversy in the Sierra Club shows how a group organized around environmental sustainability can itself become polluted by racism on the question of immigration controls.

In reality, immigrants are among the main victims of environmental degradation, not the cause. Any tolerance of the right wing within the environmental movement will weaken and corrupt it. The real threats to the planet are plain--the reckless pursuers of profit in Corporate America, the Pentagon's war makers, and their cheerleaders in Washington.

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