Split decision 

An anti-immigration policy up for a vpte by the Sierra Club has environmental leaders running scared

Joyce Tarnow, a long-time supporter of abortion rights, is taking on another controversial cause -- limiting immigration. The Pompano Beach woman, who is running for the board of the national Sierra Club, plants the seeds of her argument in fertile ground: Too many people in the United States are gobbling up too many natural resources.

"Dade County," she says, "is ripe for an awful lot of fallout [from immigration] anytime soon."

OK, so overcrowding impacts the environment. That's easy enough to understand. But Tarnow's green discourse is quickly covered in shadowy allusions to catastrophe.

There is a separate society being established, she says. Huge numbers of people are coming in from a variety of cultures, she say. Sure, America was based on freedom of religion, but "some of these people are into animal sacrifice and female mutilation." Is that what the forefathers had in mind?

The melting pot, she says, is becoming a bubbling cauldron of dissent. Put too many different kind of people in one place, she says, and Florida "becomes a situation like Lebanon where we are going to be at war with ourselves."

Should we close the borders to save the planet?

Last month, a ballot essentially asking that question went out to more than 550,000 members of the Sierra Club, the world-renowned environmental organization heretofore exclusively pledged to preserving Earth's natural resources.

Club members are being asked to choose from "Alternative A," which would require the club to take a stand to limit immigration, and "Alternative B," which restates the club's current population policy -- that is, to protect reproductive rights, champion economic security and promote environmentally responsible consumption.

At issue is whether the club should align itself with forces pledged to stopping the flow of immigrants pursuing the American dream. The underlying question: Will the Earth's health really be improved by what amounts to a national not-in-my-backyard policy?

Predictably, the issue has cleaved a deep division in the club, pitting environmentalists against each other, probably much to the delight of logging companies, industrial polluters and other environmental pirates formerly in the Sierra Club's sights.

For decades, the club has debated problems of overpopulation and immigration. In 1994, after its members became bitterly divided, the club's national committee on population was disbanded and reformed with new members. Not coincidentally, the resulting move to put the issue to a club vote was led by one of the jilted members, Alan Kuper, a former college professor from Cleveland, Ohio.

For a nation of armchair environmentalists -- people who dutifully separate plastics from glass before going to play street commando in a gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle -- Tarnow's quick mental journey from saving the planet to defending the American Way of Life seems a very long trek.

But Tarnow is one of a strange hybrid of "immigreens" attempting to push the nation's oldest and most respected environmental group to take a stand on who is allowed into the country.

By collecting 2,000 signatures, Kuper and his supporters put the question to the general membership. Ballots must be cast by April 18; results are expected by April 25.

Their opponents -- including the Sierra Club's national board and many of the organization's staff members -- worry that outside groups are crawling under the environmental tent to camouflage extreme, racist views ranging from support of eugenics to the idea that European Americans are racially superior (see accompanying article). Overpopulation is a problem, they say, that limiting immigration won't do anything to fix. Indeed, even if fewer people are allowed into the United States, they say, global resources will continue to disappear at the same rapid rate.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense to those who address environmental issues to look at political borders," says Julie Beezley, who is leading the national effort against the proposal.

Whatever its outcome, this looks to be the first battle in a long ideological war over the grass-roots goals of environmental causes.

"People are very strongly passionate one way or the other," says Cecilia Height, former president of the Sierra Club's Central Florida chapter, who supports Alternative B.

Kuper says if the measure doesn't pass, it will be placed on the ballot -- which usually addresses measures such as clear-cutting forests, and which is used by the grass-roots membership, including 20,000 people in Florida, to help steer the national organization's lobbying efforts -- again next year. Yet even if the measure is approved, getting the leadership to act on it will be difficult.

The Alternative A forces vow a prolonged fight.

'We will have to force the [national] board to act," says Jo Ann Quarrier, a former chairman of the Miami chapter. Should Amendment A pass, she says, the national organization should designate some of its considerable political muscle toward getting immigration limits approved by Congress.

Quarrier, long active in population issues with the Sierra Club in Miami, says the United States "can no longer be the overflow valve" for the overpopulation of other countries. If America closes its borders, she says, other countries will be forced to address, not export, their own population problems. It's time, she says, for the Sierra Club to do what's best for the land of our forefathers before thinking of Mother Earth.

"We are a national organization," she says. "We need to take care of our backyard."

Such statements underscore the angry division. Talks of trail hikes have been replaced with discussions of racism; emotional e-mails are flying. Public debates in California, where anti-immigration forces have been active and vocal for years, have been especially nasty.

The fact that those debates have not reached the same fever pitch in Florida may reflect the sheer volume of new arrivals. Of the 915,900 immigrants to the United States each year, only about 80,000 end up in Florida. The Sunshine State has the fourth-highest rate of immigration behind No. 1 California, which accounts for 22 percent, Texas and Illinois.

The makeup of Florida's immigrant population -- heavily weighted with Cubans, who certainly have a powerful political presence in South Florida -- also may have contributed to quell the debate here. Even so, Tarnow warns, "in four of five years, Florida will be in the same position as California."

Currently on the West Coast, supporters of the anti-immigration stand include one of the leaders of Proposition 187, a California state push to limit government aid to immigrants. So strong are passions there, says Beezley, that she received a call from a California hunting club, ready to sign up its 150 members with the Sierrans so that they could vote to support Alternative A.

But what is really at stake, and why should those outside of the club care?

The Sierra Club, founded more than 100 years ago, has become one of the nation's most effective environmental lobbying groups. Sierra Club groups from Central Florida are traveling to Tallahassee this week to lobby state legislators on a variety of more traditional environmental issues, such as curbing pollution in Lake Jessup. In Washington, D.C., club lobbyists are a force to contend with on Capitol Hill. The fear is that the national club's endorsement of anything remotely viewed as immigrant-bashing will severely hamper the club's effectiveness in translating its environmental stands into law.

Moreover, says Eric Skogsberg, current chairman of the 1,000-member Central Florida chapter, the more extreme positions could alienate some current -- and potential -- Sierra Club members. "I don't feel for the club it is a good issue," he says. "Once you start having an agenda on immigration, you are going to start alienating Hispanics and people of color."

The perceived taint also would seep like a toxic spill into issues promoted by other environmental groups. Environ-mental leaders fear that politicians who grudgingly have voted green in the past would have the excuse they need to vote against environmental causes. Taking a stand on immigration issues pushes the club off "the moral high ground," says Hunter Cutting, a volunteer spokesman for Alternative B and an active Sierra Club member in San Francisco. "I don't think we can claim to be acting solely in the best interest of the environment anymore."

But there is a problem inherent in clear-cutting supporters of immigration bans by using the sharp accusation of racism. Immigration, as it relates to overall population control, is a valid environmental issue. In 1989 the club's official stand called for lending the Sierra Club voice to "debate on legal immigration when appropriate." And some prominent Sierrans initially endorsed the current proposal. Serious environmentalists say immigration has too great an impact to simply ignore.

Yet it also is true that many of those urging support of the Sierra Club position are green rookies. Leon Bouvier, author of "Florida's Population in the Next Century," isn't much of an environmentalist, but he sees why the ballot is getting so much attention.

Bouvier, a Lake County resident whose radical view favors blocking new immigration for up to 10 years and detaining illegal immigrants in abandoned Air Force bases, says the ballot offers a new way to push the anti-immigration cause. Apparently, anti-immigration groups haven't had much luck getting their message across.

Opposed by the left for humanitarian reasons -- what Bouvier calls "the Statue-of- Liberty thing" -- those forces also are blocked from the right for economic reasons: The more immigrants, their thinking goes, the more people willing to work for lower wages.

Talk long with "immigreen" supporters such as Kuper, however, and the conversation takes a dark turn. The father of three first talks of limiting overpopulation, but soon moves onto a discourse on how people move here from poorer countries and quickly adopt our way of life.

Kuper says that Americans make up 5 percent of the world's population but consume 25 percent of the world's resources. And when immigrants move in, he says, they quickly adapt to our higher standard of living. For example, he says, "the person coming here is right away going to have a refrigerator, the major user of electricity in your home." Then, he adds, they probably will get a car -- and then maybe have kids.

Says Cutting, the spokesman for Alternative B: "Basically they are telling people they can't come to our country because we are living pretty high on the hog here and, oh, by the way, don't adopt our lifestyle because the earth can't afford it."

National Sierra Club board member David Brower sees the same thing. The eminent environmentalist and former club executive director's name originally appeared in Alternative A's list of backers. He asked them to remove it. Neither is he endorsing Alternative B. He thinks they're both wrong.

"This has been missing from all our discussion on immigration: that we have forced it on ourselves," he says. "One of our objectives should be to handle things so well that people don't have to come over here to take back the loot we stole from them in the first place. We should make major efforts to make it possible for people to live happily where they are, with our not trying to hog the resources of the earth."

sidebar: Who's pushing the hot button?

Just who are the latest "immigreen" players in a Sierra Club debate generating more charges and countercharges than the investigation of President Clinton?

The Political Ecology Group, a San Francisco-based organization devoted to issues of immigrants and the environment, has collected background information on some of the non-Sierra Club organizations that are actively supporting the anti-immigration ballot issue. They found that some of the organizations lobbying for Alternative A openly embrace racist, white-supremacist positions and have well-document ties to extreme right organizations.

These groups have conducted mass mailings, distributed videos, purchased paid advertisements, lobbied environmental reporters and urged their members to join the Sierra Club in time to vote on the issue.

The groups include:

Californians for Population Stabilization, which has been allied with groups supporting immigration moratoriums, stepped-up deportations and concentrated appeals to "European Americans."

The Social Contract Press, which talks of cultural disintegration and ethnic warfare as a result of immigration, and supports the idea that "the very concept of a multicultural and multiracial culture is suspect."

Federation of American Immigration Reform, which includes board members who have historically supported the idea of eugenics, or the genetic superiority of the white race.

The Carry Capacity Network, which publishes a 200-page training manual that blatantly proclaims the racial superiority of whites and refers to non-white races as "sun people" who are "incapable of operating a democracy."


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