Former Sierra Club Director Discusses Hostile Takeover Attempt by Anti-Immigrant Activists

A director of the Sierra Club discusses an ongoing attempt to turn the environmental powerhouse into an anti-immigration group

Anti-immigration activists have pondered trying to take over the well-known environmental group, the Sierra Club, going back at least to the mid-1980s. The basic idea, suggested in a once-secret 1986 memo by anti-immigration leader John Tanton, was to seize the reins of a respected and well-financed liberal group to express immigration restriction arguments that might otherwise draw accusations of racism.

Led by a group then called Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization (it is now known only by its acronym, SUSPS), anti-immigration activists including current Club director Ben Zuckerman made their first attempt in 1998. Their proposed resolution failed in a bitterly fought 60%-40% vote of the Sierra Club's membership.

Last fall, as predicted earlier in these pages, it became clear that a second major attempt, led again by Zuckerman and his allies, had begun. SUSPS and other anti-immigration groups and individuals are now pushing to elect a board majority that agrees with them.

Since that fact became public, 13 former Sierra Club presidents have signed an open letter warning that the Club is facing the most serious threat in its 112-year history.

J. Robert Cox, a two-time former Club president (1994-96 and 2000-01) and a current board member, is in the forefront of those opposing the anti-immigration campaign. A professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Robbie Cox studies the role of discourse in social change, including environmental change, and is a veteran of the immigration wars that have convulsed the Sierra Club.

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: What was your first personal contact with anti-immigration activists interested in the Sierra Club?

ROBBIE COX: When I was president of the Club for the first time. In 1996, volunteer leaders in the Club's population program approached the board of directors to alert us that new members were coming into the Sierra Club wanting to push immigration as an issue. These leaders thought this was simply inappropriate for the Club, because we had no evidence that U.S. immigration was detrimental to the environment.

These new members were asking that we update our policies on population and immigration, because immigration had never been a focus of our work. Our focus had been on population growth, particularly global population growth.

Globally, we understood that population had serious consequences for air, the land and the food supply, of course. But we were not persuaded that the evidence was at all clear on the United States.

So we agreed that year to refine the existing policy by adopting a statement of neutrality on U.S. immigration.

IR: That wasn't the end of it, right?

COX: Once the board adopted the neutrality policy, it apparently motivated what we thought was simply a small group of Sierra Club members who began to object. The board held steadfast — we simply did not see the evidence. This group then initiated the ballot proposition process.

The Sierra Club is very open and democratic in its governing structure. It not only allows all its members, over 700,000 people, to elect its board of directors. It also allows members to put forward a ballot proposition, if they gather enough signatures, that can alter the Club's existing policies.

So this group organized itself as SUSPS, or Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, and began a petition drive to get their proposition on the ballot. This happened in 1997, and the election occurred in the spring of 1998.

IR: Do you know who the principals of SUSPS were then?

COX: One principal actor was Ben Zuckerman. Zuckerman had formerly been a director of an anti-immigration group called Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America, which is a group whose name does not suggest its goal of restricting immigration into the U.S. Zuckerman was also an officer on the board of another group called Californians for Population Stabilization, or CAPS.

We frankly didn't know some of the people working with him at the time. I think we underestimated how serious this was in 1998.

IR: Were you aware then of the 1986 Tanton memo that specifically mentioned the Sierra Club as a potential target for anti-immigration activists?

COX: No, we only became aware of that recently, as a result of the [Oct. 21, 2003] letter that the Southern Poverty Law Center sent to our president.

IR: The Club's policy in 1996 did say something about seeking to stabilize and ultimately reduce U.S. population, didn't it?

COX: That's true. And SUSPS' argument was that we can't achieve that stabilization without reducing immigration. Once we understood that that was their interpretation of the policy, we realized that we were being pulled into a very divisive and potentially ugly political battle. We refused to go down that path.

One of our primary concerns was that we would find ourselves less effective in working on population stabilization if our allies in Congress began to view us as more of an anti-immigration group than as having anything to do with the environment.

We had also begun working very closely with coalitions in the United States that arose out of the environmental justice movement and with the Congressional Black Caucus.

IR: What happened during the ballot proposition campaign?

COX: Once they qualified it for the ballot, we realized that it was somewhat deceptive in that it suggested that the Sierra Club had not been working seriously on population issues. So, to present our voters with a clear choice of policy in the area of population, the board of directors placed its own initiative on the ballot that was an alternative to the SUSPS initiative.

SUSPS' Alternative A called for a reversal of the neutrality position and urged a reduction in net immigration into the United States.

The board, which put forward Alternative B, tried to make clear that the way to address the root causes of not only population but also migration was to address such things as the reproductive health and rights of women, their empowerment, and also by encouraging sustainability in other countries — economic security, health and nutrition, human rights.

There is less pressure for migrations across borders when populations have a secure existence and are not driven by desperate poverty to seek work elsewhere.

In the end, the membership overwhelmingly rejected the SUSPS initiative. At that point, we thought SUSPS had had their opportunity and the Club had spoken. Frankly, we turned our attention elsewhere.