Four decades ago, Sierra Club executive director David Brower observed: “We feel you don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.” In the late 1990s, when the Club retreated from its earlier policy to limit immigration in order to stabilize U.S. population growth, Brower exhorted: “The [Sierra Club] leadership are fooling themselves. Overpopulation is a very serious problem, and overimmigration is a big part of it. We must address both. We can’t ignore either.”
Ignoring both the grave environmental costs of immigration-driven U.S. population growth and its own organizational history, last week the board of directors of the Sierra Club voted to support “comprehensive immigration reform” (CIR) efforts in Congress that would legalize 11 million or more illegal immigrants, and increase legal immigration into the U.S. by hundreds of thousands annually. Despite the fact that at current immigration levels the U.S. is on track to increase our population to 525 million by 2100, the Sierra Club’s board apparently believes we need to increase our population even faster.
Each ½ million more immigrants allowed into the U.S. annually will increase our population by approximately 72 million people in 2100. Depending on how it is implemented, the “Gang of Eight” “reform” proposal could bring in between ½ and one million more immigrants each year, causing the U.S. population to balloon to between 600 and 700 million people by 2100.
Like Bill McKibben’s about-face on immigration last month, this recent shift looks to have been driven by short-term politics. Word has it that in exchange for La Raza’s support for 350.org’s and the Sierra Club’s big D.C. rally against the Keystone XL pipeline, McKibben and Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, promised to support CIR. We at PFIR oppose Keystone XL. But with hundreds of millions more Americans in coming decades, we can expect dozens more such bad projects to be built.
The Sierra Club’s new stance on immigration is a sad indication of how far the organization has retreated from an appreciation of the role population plays in environmental issues. David Brower was a conservation giant, but with this decision, his successors in the Club stand revealed as short-sighted, politically-correct pygmies, standing down from the challenge of advocating for a truly sustainable society in the U.S.
Here is Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune’s explanation for the policy change, interspersed with our comments in italics. This blog post is titled “A Path to the Future,” presenting this as a forward-thinking decision. But nowhere does Brune discuss the question of how many people will inhabit the U.S. in the wonderful future he imagines:
A PATH TO THE FUTURE
In 1849, an eleven-year-old boy moved with his family to the United States. More than four decades later, that boy co-founded the Sierra Club and served as its president for the next 22 years. Like many great Americans, John Muir was an immigrant. It is only because he was able to take advantage of the opportunities in his adopted country that the Sierra Club exists at all.
Not a bad opening, rhetorically. However, in 1849 the U.S. population stood at 23 million people, and even when Muir founded the Sierra Club in the early 1890s, we only had about 65 million people. Today the U.S. population stands at 315 million and climbing. Might that changed reality dictate a changed immigration policy?
Today, however, the American immigration system is broken. It forces approximately 11 million people to live outside the prevailing currents of our society.
Note that the existence of 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. has nothing to do with so many people breaking U.S. immigration laws, or with the federal government failing to uphold those laws. The problem is “the system,” which “forces” all these people “outside prevailing currents,” by defining them as here illegally. It is a short step from here, to “solving” this “problem” by legalizing them all.
Many of them work in the fields, mop floors, care for other people’s children, and take low-wage jobs to support their families.
Why are so many of these jobs “low wage”? Could it have something to do with flooded labor markets? Won’t increasing immigration of low-skilled, poorly-educated workers further depress wages for these jobs?
Many work in jobs that expose them to dangerous conditions, chemicals and pesticides, and many more live in areas with disproportionate levels of toxic air and water pollution.
The 20 million Americans with family members whose legal status is in limbo share the Sierra Club’s concerns about climate and the environment. For example, our own polls indicate that Latinos support environmental and conservation efforts with even greater intensity than the average American: 90 percent of Latino voters favor clean energy over fossil fuels. A California study found that 74 percent of Asian-Americans, the fastest growing group in America, accept climate science. Yet, significant numbers of these stakeholders and change agents have been denied their civil rights in the public arena.
The last sentence implies that illegal immigrants have a right to be here in the U.S. – that it is unjust for Americans to keep out any immigrants who want to come to the U.S. The logical implication is that U.S. citizens have no right to restrict immigration into the U.S. Not to keep labor markets from being flooded, depressing wages and increasing economic inequality. Not to stabilize our population, even if that is absolutely necessary to creating a sustainable society. We at PFIR strongly disagree. We follow Barbara Jordan, who stated that “it is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest.”
The Sierra Club is committed to partnering with all who share our urgent concerns about advancing our democracy and fighting the climate crisis. It is time for us to work together. That is why the Sierra Club Board of Directors has voted to offer our organization’s strong support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Such a pathway should be free of unreasonable barriers and should facilitate keeping families together and uniting those that have been split apart whenever possible.
Who has “split apart” families, if not those illegal immigrants (sorry, “undocumented workers”) who break our immigration laws and force us to choose between upholding those laws or not. Are any “barriers” to immigration or citizenship acceptable, or are all such barriers “unreasonable”?
For the Sierra Club and the environmental movement to protect our wild America, defend clean air and water, and win the fight against climate disruption, we must ensure that the people who are the most disenfranchised and the most affected by pollution have the voice to fight polluters and advocate for climate solutions without fear.
Just to be clear, then: the Sierra Club’s strategy for increasing environmental protection in the U.S. is to bring in hundreds of millions of foreigners during the rest of this century. They will be poorer and more at risk from pollution than the average American citizen, so they’ll have a greater stake in limiting it. So, we’ll have lots more people to fight pollution. With a plan like this, how can environmentalists lose?
This isn’t the first time that the Sierra Club has taken a stand on a critical issue. In 1993, the Club opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, a controversial position, but one that has proven to be the right choice. We did not think it would be good for workers or the environment, and it hasn’t been. In fact, NAFTA has been a major driver of undocumented immigration into the U.S. from Mexico and Central America.
More recently, the Club has challenged the Real ID Act, which allows the Department of Homeland Security to waive 36 federal laws — including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Wilderness Act. That ill-conceived suspension of bedrock environmental laws has been used to construct border walls in the Southwest with little regard to their effect on wildlife and habitats nor their cost in human lives.
But the larger question is not the ecological impacts of border fencing, but the ecological impacts of hundreds of millions more Americans. On this, the Sierra Club remains silent.
Dan Millis, our Sierra Club Borderlands campaign organizer, was famously given a littering ticket by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for leaving life-saving bottles of water on federally protected land in the Sonoran desert.
We cannot solve either the climate crisis or our broken immigration system by acting out of fear or by supporting exclusion.
Note the implication that those of us who want to reduce immigration, or just restrict it at some level, are “fearful” of immigrants. Nothing could be further from the truth. We at PFIR do not fear immigrants—we fear the loss of wilderness and wildlife, and the extinction of native species, by a continuing onslaught of humanity. And we do “support the exclusion” of some people who want to immigrate to the United States. We cannot accommodate everyone who wants to come here. Surely this is the minimum amount of realism necessary for any intelligent discussion of immigration policy.
One of our nation’s greatest strengths is the contribution that generations of immigrants have made to our national character. If we are serious about solving the climate crisis and protecting our democracy, then we need to work with the hardworking men and women who want to play by the rules and play a part in building a healthy, safe, and prosperous future for our country.
The question is not what contribution immigrants have made to America’s “national character” in the past, but the contribution an expansion of mass immigration will make our country’s overall numbers in the future. Americans are some of the biggest energy hogs in the world. If the Sierra Club is serious about “solving the climate crisis,” the last thing they should be advocating for is hundreds of millions more Americans.
We leave you with a quote from Edward O. Wilson, from his book The Diversity of LIfe: “The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical concept.”