By Valerie Richardson
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
October 1, 2006
Illegal immigration is an environmental issue for Shela A. McFarlin, who has seen firsthand the tons of trash dumped in the fragile Arizona desert by border-crossers.
Illegal aliens have turned parts of the Southwest desert into environmental disaster areas — dumping an estimated 25 million pounds of trash in the Arizona desert, carving out hundreds of miles of roads through the wilderness and destroying thousands of acres of habitat with cooking fires that have gone awry.
“The desert environment is fairly sensitive, so we're concerned about the damage to habitat, plants and animals,” said Miss McFarlin, who authored the Bureau of Land Management's 2006 report on environmental damage from illegal immigration. “It's not at all inviting to see toilet paper, fecal matter and backpacks by the thousands. Not at all.”
Once the immigrants, both legal and illegal, arrive, the scenario isn't much rosier. Immigration is now the primary factor in U.S. population growth, which drives such environmental woes as housing sprawl, pollution and traffic.
But don't expect your local Green Party activist to grab a lawn chair and join the Minutemen border patrols any time soon: The mainstream environmental movement is firmly and uniformly agnostic on the issue.
“We've never taken a position pro or con on immigration,” Sierra Club spokesman Eric Antebi said.
“We don't have the expertise to deal with that [illegal immigration],” Wilderness Society spokesman Ben Beach said.
These responses exasperate environmentalists such as Dick Lamm, the former Democratic governor of Colorado and a 30-year member of the Sierra Club. Mr. Lamm broke ranks with the movement years ago by insisting that a responsible environmental policy has to include population and immigration controls.
He is among the most prominent of a small-but-hardy band of environmentalists who have tried for years to push the movement toward an anti-immigration stance. So far, they haven't had much luck.
“The environmental movement refuses to acknowledge that immigration and population are environmental issues,” Mr. Lamm said.
Why? Politics, he said.
“The environmental movement has gone politically correct,” Mr. Lamm said. “They're committing political malpractice by ignoring population.”
But Jenny Neeley, Southwest representative for Defenders of Life, said her group hasn't taken a stance on immigration reform in Congress because “I don't think we're knowledgeable enough to say, 'This will stop the illegal crossings.'”
Faced with a difficult choice, critics said, the environmental movement has abandoned its primary mission — protecting the planet –rather than deviate from the liberal establishment.
“They're still pretty much ignoring it [illegal immigration] because it's politically sensitive or because they perceive it to be politically sensitive,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for Immigration Reform. “Nobody denies that environmental degradation is due in part to population growth, and nobody denies that the biggest reason for population growth is immigration.
“But somehow, when they put together A and B, it doesn't lead to C,” he said.
Some environmentalists counter that population control is an issue that doesn't respect borders. Whether the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the United States chose to live in New Mexico or Mexico City, they are still part of a global overpopulation problem.
“Do people who migrate to the United States increase environmental stress? It depends on where they would end up otherwise. Los Angeles, for example, could handle 10,000 Ecuadoreans more easily than the Galapagos Islands could,” Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope wrote in a 2004 article in the group's magazine.
Alan Kuper, a longtime Sierra Club member and a critic of its immigration stance, said this is an unfair comparison because Americans are greater consumers of resources than people living in other countries.
“That's the cop-out argument that you get,” Mr. Kuper said. “An individual in the U.S. is responsible for consumption or use of resources of about 30 times the resources a child in India will use in his lifetime.”
Critics also cite the group's longstanding policy that calls first for U.S. population control, then global stabilization.
“Our immigration policy can't make a dent in world poverty, and we take in two times more immigrants as any other country already,” Mr. Lamm said. “The question is how can the U.S. best help the environment? By building a sustainable society.”
Other environmentalists acknowledge that they tread lightly when it comes to illegal immigration in order to protect their work on other environmental issues.
“Because it's such a charged issue in this country, it's hard to get involved without getting caught in the crossfire,” Mr. Antebi said. “We have a history of working with a large number of constituencies, and we want to continue to work with them.
“If we'd gotten involved with the immigration issue, we would have burned a lot of bridges,” he said.
The group would have burned those bridges not just with its allies, but with many of its grass-roots members.
“We tend to work with communities that have a lot of immigrants,” Mr. Antebi said. “In California, the places with the worst air pollution tend to be the places with the largest number of immigrants.
“If we took sides on immigration pro or con, it would affect our relationships with these communities,” he said.
No environmental group has debated the immigration issue more publicly than the Sierra Club. In 2004 and 2005, anti-immigration candidates attempted to reverse the club's direction by running for seats on its 15-member board of directors. All of them lost, including Mr. Lamm, in 2004.
The club came under fire in 2004 after a wealthy donor, Wall Street investor David Gelbaum, told the Los Angeles Times that he had warned Mr. Pope in 1994 or 1995 that he would never give another dollar if the club ever took an anti-immigration stance.
In 1996, the club voted to adopt a neutrality stance on immigration, reversing its longstanding position in favor of limiting immigration. In 2000 and 2001, Mr. Gelbaum donated a total of $100 million to the organization.
Critics accused the Sierra Club of selling out, but Mr. Antebi denied any linkage between the events.
“This organization is too big and too democratic in its grass-roots leadership,” he said, pointing out that the club's policies are set by its elected board. “No one person can wield that much influence.”
Besides, he said, Sierra Club members hardly need to be bribed to recognize the merits of avoiding the immigration debate.
“It's not that crazy to figure out why an organization like the Sierra Club would not want to wade into an issue like immigration,” Mr. Antebi said. “Protecting ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]? That's our bread-and-butter. Reducing air-pollution levels? That's our bread-and-butter. Immigration? That's really not our bread-and-butter.”
At one time, however, stabilizing the U.S. population was indeed a central tenet of the environmental movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, when it was just taking root, the call for “zero population growth” was as loud and insistent as the cry for cleaner air and water.
In 1970, the Sierra Club adopted a policy calling for the nation to “bring about the stabilization of the population first of the United States and then of the world.” Three years later, Mr. Pope told the New York Times that “we can't hope to absorb all who want to come in. … Immigration is a sentimental symbol whose day is long past.”
By 1998, however, the environmental movement was in full retreat from both the population and immigration issue. Roy Beck and Leon Kolankiewicz of NumbersUSA attribute the phenomenon to a number of factors, including the drop in U.S. fertility rates.
However, the researchers from the immigration-reform group conclude that the primary cause was demographics: The immigrants were Hispanic, and there were millions of them. Environmental leaders soon decided they couldn't afford a political skirmish with a large and increasingly influential minority group.
“One of the main reasons the Sierra Club leadership gave in 1998 for avoiding the immigration issue was that they dared not risk appearing to be racially insensitive,” the authors wrote in their paper, “The Environmental Movement's Retreat from Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization (1970-1998).”
The authors quote Mr. Pope in a 1997 online message to members: “While it is theoretically possible to have a non-racial debate about immigration, it is not practically possible for an open organization like the Sierra Club to do so. … [Recent history] has caused me to change my view of whether it is possible for the Sierra Club to deal with the immigration issue in a way which would not implicate us in ethnic or racial polarization.”
While that calculation might be correct, critics say, there's just one problem: It puts environmental protection second. The result has been the birth of a hybrid political movement made up of environmentalists-cum-immigration hawks.
Among the leaders of the movement is Mr. Kuper, a one-time Sierra Club leader and retired physics professor. After the 1996 neutrality vote, Mr. Kuper founded Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, a splinter group of disgruntled members devoted to returning the club to its “traditional population policy.”
The group developed a scorecard that grades members of Congress on their votes on the environment, immigration and family-planning issues. Mr. Kuper also regularly lobbies the League of Conservation Voters to include immigration on its list of issues.
Relations between the rebels and the mother ship aren't always cordial. During the 2004 and 2005 board elections, the anti-immigration candidates accused Sierra Club staffers of playing the race card to undermine their campaigns.
After the 2004 election, Mr. Pope wrote an essay titled “The Virus of Hate,” which warned members against a possible infiltration of the club by racists. He said that some candidates “on the losing side” had entered into an “ugly alliance with individuals and groups whose motivations are clearly racist.”
Mr. Kuper now includes a disclaimer on his Web site denouncing racism under the heading “No to racism, yes to environmentalism.”
Battle at the border
One issue that could pull the environmental community back into the immigration debate is the degradation at the border. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that only 1 percent of the 25 million tons of garbage left in the Southern Arizona desert has been hauled off since 2002.
The hardest-hit areas include the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which now includes about 200 miles of illegal roads carved into the landscape by trucks and off-road vehicles, prompting the Wilderness Society to issue an alert.
“The trash problem is staggering, to say the least,” said Defenders of Life's Miss Neeley, whose group has been active in cleanup efforts. “If you've seen it, it's almost surreal.”
The groups' solution, however, isn't likely to warm the hearts of immigration hawks. Instead of calling for a clampdown on illegal immigration, both groups have stern words for the U.S. Border Patrol, calling on the agency to make a stronger commitment to environmental protection.
Miss Neeley said in a 2006 article in an environmental group's publication that the problem lies with the agency's decision to push illegal aliens from urban points of entry such as Nogales, Ariz., to the desert. The idea was to make crossing the border more difficult, but the result has been the degradation of protected lands, she said in the Sky Island Alliance's newsletter.
The Border Patrol also needs to drive on established roads and avoid carving new ones through the wilderness, environmentalists say. The groups also are uniformly opposed to a border wall or fence, which they say would cut off wildlife migration routes.
What about the actual border-crossers, who rarely stick to the main highway?
“Of course, that's being done by crossers, too, but we can't tell crossers, 'Hey, you're breaking these laws,'” Miss Neeley said.
The blame-the-Border Patrol response exasperates agency spokesman Gus Soto, who suggests that the illegal aliens, drug smugglers and human smugglers bear greater responsibility for the damage than its officers.
“Unfortunately, they do choose to point the finger at us, but you have to remember, we're not the ones out there crossing. We're not the ones out there creating roads. We're trying to stop the smuggling industry,” Mr. Soto said.
The agency has implemented a training program for its officers in environmental awareness. Officers often patrol sensitive areas via aircraft or on horseback, and they feed their horses only with seeds that are indigenous to the region.
“We don't go off-road,” Mr. Soto said. “Before we do anything, we have to do an environmental-impact study to make sure it won't have a negative impact. We don't want to leave an environmental footprint in these sensitive areas.”
The smugglers, on the other hand, “will cross anywhere without concern for the environment,” he said. “It's the smugglers that are doing this, not the Border Patrol. We're going after the people who are causing the environmental harm.”
They have their differences, but one thing both the Border Patrol and Defenders of Wildlife do agree on is that something must be done to reduce the total number of border-crossers. And that's a start.
“If we don't start reducing the total number of crossers, the problem is only going to get worse,” Miss Neeley said. “And so far the environmental community really hasn't had an adequate response.”