What do you get when you cross earth-huggers, anti-immigration advocates and animal libbers? Sprinkle some white supremacists and furriers into the mix and you have the makings of one of the most bizarre elections of any activist organization in history. The U.S. Sierra Club, that country's oldest and largest eco group, is the site of this weird melee, and its smaller sister org to the north, the Sierra Club of Canada, is trying to figure out just how to weather the political storm drifting its way. At the heart of the battle is the U.S. club's take on immigration. Three of the candidates running for the board of directors in this month's mail-in election are trying to get Sierra to reverse its neutral stance on the issue and start pushing for a rollback in immigration rates. Too many immigrants, they say, are pouring into the country, sucking up dwindling resources and overcrowding an already taxed chunk of earth.
Backers of this position already hold five of the board's 15 seats, of which another five are now up for grabs. And outside groups that make no pretense of being interested in ecology (including white rights groups like White Politics Inc. and National Alliance) are entering the fray by encouraging their members to join the eco group and cast their ballots. "It's very pernicious," says Sierra USA's president, Larry Fahn. "Some of these groups are very hateful, and their getting close to our organization is nauseating." Similar shock waves are running through the Canadian club.
"We are very concerned," says Sierra Club of Canada's Elizabeth May. "Media coverage mentioning the name Sierra in the context of anti-immigration has already cost us members," she adds. It seems despite its best efforts to distance themselves from the U.S. controversy, members aren't sure they want to keep signing cheques over to a group with such unsavoury ties
May is careful to clarify that the Sierra Club of Canada is an autonomous body with its own board of directors and policies, and has been for over a decade. Still, while policies may be different, they have to be compatible, and May says an anti-immigration position simply isn't.
She worries that outsiders are trying to shift the club's focus from "legitimate environmental issues to becoming a voice for people who want to create a Fortress America and not let anybody in."
The question remains: why has the Sierra Club become the flashpoint for what is being called a hostile takeover? Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization known for tracking hate groups, says the club might as well have a big fat bull's eye on its back. "It has three-quarters of a million members. It's got almost a $90 million a year budget. It's seen as the premier environmental organization. It has real pull on Capitol Hill. All those things make the Sierra Club a very ripe target for the anti-immigration movement." Potok explains that as far back as 1986, hate groups were eyeing what they called "liberal" groups like the Sierra Club as potential targets for infiltration based on the notion that "if they can get Sierra Club to mouth (anti-immigration) opinions, they're going to be seen as a vastly more legitimate message."
Observers also point out that what's enabling outsiders to meddle in club politics to begin with is Sierra's fairly unique democratic structure. Unlike other activist orgs like Greenpeace, all Sierra members are allowed to vote for the board. (A similar structure makes the Canadian club vulnerable to takeovers, too.) And if you can gather roughly 250 signatures, you can qualify as a petition candidate (as did this year's three anti-immigration candidates), whether or not you've ever been involved in the club.
Environmental historian Roderick Nash says the issue runs deeper than just the club's structure. The San Francisco-based Sierra Club's history on immigration goes back to the early days of the club, which was founded in 1892. Early members like Madison Grant wrote of holding back the immigrant hordes to prevent the erosion of the environment, a view Nash says was representative of the upper-crust org. "The conservation of nature was an important issue in the club, but so was the conservation of privilege," notes the retired academic, explaining that early Sierra Clubbers weren't too pleased when large waves of hispanic immigrants, both legal and illegal, started pouring into California.
While the traditional source of resistance to immigration might have been white, nature-loving patricians, the movement seems to be drawing a much more diverse crowd these days. Like Greenpeace founder and Sea Shepherd director Paul Watson (who, by the way, is already on Sierra's board). The animal rights activist says high levels of immigration are stealing resources and habitat from other species. "But all these white upper-class liberals who are in the Sierra Club seem to be more concerned with having their cheap nannies and gardeners than anything else," says Watson.
Sea Shepherd and veggie orgs like PETA are encouraging their members to vote for anti-immigration candidates without mentioning their stance on immigration. It seems several of those candidates are vegetarians and/or opposed to hunting, much to the alarm of Fur Commission USA, which has also encouraged its members to join Sierra to sway the vote away from the animal-friendly contingent.
Another emblem of the anti-immigration forces' diversity is former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and current Sierra candidate Frank Morris. He says high immigration rates stress not only the environment but the African-American community as well. "Going back hundreds of years, African-American leaders have always pointed out that if you increase the supply of labour, then African Americans are either displaced or simply not hired. That hasn't changed."
Representatives of this eclectic array insist they're being unjustly vilified. "The position for less immigration is held by the majority of Americans. Numerous surveys show that," says Morris. "And to say that a position held by the majority is to be condemned because there are some nuts who hold an (extreme) view of that doesn't really make any sense."
Ben Zuckerman, board member and co-founder of Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, also downplays the club's support from white supremacist groups. "This is a long string of McCarthy-like guilt by association," says Zuckerman. "There's absolutely no way we can stop white supremacists from supporting us." Politics, he adds, makes strange bedfellows.
Still, activists on the other side say the club is getting badly sidetracked. "(Focusing on immigration) takes us down a very superficial path in addressing the causes of population growth and the factors that drive desperately poor people to migrate," says Sierra USA board member Robbie Cox. Yes, overpopulation is taxing the planet and its resources, but immigration just moves people from one part of the world to another. "To adopt a policy of restricting U.S. immigration is like pulling up the drawbridge. It doesn't do anything to reduce the total numbers of people on the earth. It merely draws a line around the United States."
The answer, say officials at both Sierra Club USA and Canada, is to get at the root causes of population growth around the world, like lack of access to family planning, medical care and literacy for women.
Meanwhile, with only two weeks till ballots are tallied down south, Sierra Club of Canada's board is agonizing over what to do if anti-immigration forces do, in fact, form a majority at Sierra headquarters and change club policy. "We'd have to look at what's the hit to us in Canada who are known as Sierra Club of Canada and (whether) to pick a new name," says May. "Sad to say, (this issue) probably isn't going to go away." firstname.lastname@example.org