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Immigration Issue Becomes Focal Point in Sierra Club Elections - 2004-04-07

There's a battle being waged within the oldest environmental organization in the United States. The Sierra Club is currently holding elections to fill five seats on its board of directors. Among the 17 candidates are six people who want the Sierra Club to push for stricter limits on the number of immigrants allowed into the United States each year.

It's an issue that has deeply divided the 750,000-member-organization, which was founded in 1892 by John Muir, a conservationist considered by many to have been the father of America's National Parks system. Supporters of immigration limits already control five of the fifteen seats on the Sierra Club's board of directors. Richard Lamm, who served as governor of the western state of Colorado from 1975 to 1987, is one of the candidates in this year's election who favors limits on immigration. He points out that nearly 40 percent of the United States' population growth in the last ten years has been in the form of immigration.

"I think that the Sierra Club is committing environmental malpractice when they avoid the issue of stabilizing the population of the United States," he said. "You can't run away from it. It is a major environmental issue."

The Sierra Club does actually list population growth as one of its environmental concerns. But current board president Larry Fahn says changing America's immigration policies won't lessen the negative impact human beings have on the environment. It'll just guarantee that the impact is felt in other countries before it's felt here.

"Pulling up the drawbridge or dismantling the Statue of Liberty and saying no more people can come here just moves the problem elsewhere," explained Mr. Fahn. "It doesn't get at the root cause. Immigration is a symptom of a huge population explosion that's going on all over the world."

But that sort of the reasoning, according to Richard Lamm, avoids what has become an increasingly obvious reality? and that is that a single American, native or immigrant, uses up more of the world's natural resources? and puts more pollutants into the air and water? than a single resident of any other country in the world.

"There's no question that an average American, various studies show, [uses], you know, 42 times what an average Indian does," he reminded. "And so certainly an average American has much more impact on the eco-system."

No one at the Sierra Club is denying that. But Larry Fahn says limiting the number of people who are allowed to become Americans isn't the solution. He says the club should be concentrating its efforts on getting all Americans? immigrants and natives alike? to cut down on their energy usage. But if the Sierra Club starts advocating limits on immigration, Larry Fahn says, that could have a negative impact on the club's effectiveness.

"If our organization were to take a strong anti-immigration position, it would cause us to shatter some alliances that we're been building to effect things like environmental justice," said Mr. Fahn. "I mean, we've been working with the labor community and communities of color around this country in order to minimize the impacts of pollution in communities of color."

Larry Fahn points out that while none of the candidates favoring immigration limits is affiliated with a racist organization, some of their supporters are. In fact, one supporter referred to Hmong immigrants as drug-addicted polygamists when encouraging readers of her website to join the Sierra Club so they could vote for the candidates who favor immigration limits. Larry Fahn says he worries the debate has attracted people to the Sierra Club who aren't really interested in passing laws that will protect the environment. But candidate Richard Lamm insists concerns about the impact of immigration on the environment are still valid, and that he isn't responsible for the racism of some of his supporters.

"To me, that's like saying the Sierra Club is anti-Semitic, because they take money from the Ford Foundation, and Henry Ford [the founder of the Ford Motor Company] was an anti-Semite," he said. "I've never heard of these people. I'm being associated with organizations I disavow. I think this is environmental McCarthyism."

The Sierra Club will be collecting ballots from its members until April 21.