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Policy View: Immigration, Population Policy,
and the Sierra Club
Frederick A.B. Meyerson

We need to find a civil way to talk about immigration to the United
States, its effects on the environment, and its relationship to other serious
demographic issues facing the country and the world. This invited commentary
is intended to further that conversation, in the wake of the recent
infighting at the Sierra Club over immigration policy, which has been
extensively covered by the United States media.

There is broad agreement among scientists that human population
dynamics have significant effects on the environment at multiple scales, and
that the location, density, and movement of population is related to a
variety of conservation and environmental impacts. On the political side,
very few people favor either completely closed or completely open borders
for the United States. However, discussion of the vast middle ground between
those two policy options has become so contentious and polarized
that serious public debate has been largely paralyzed.

This is an issue much larger than the Sierra Club and its ongoing
internal and public political battle over whether the environmental organization
should advocate a specific policy. Immigration is the only significant
long-term driver of American population growth. The U.S. fertility rate
fell below 2.1 in the early 1970s, has remained at or below replacement
level since that time, and is projected to remain near replacement for the
foreseeable future.

Net immigration, however, has steadily increased for several decades. American population has grown by nearly 100 million (50%) since 1970 and is projected to rise by an additional 120 million by 2050, in large part as a result of immigration.[1] Because of high U.S. per capita levels of consumption and production of pollutants, the environmental impact of this population growth is one of the most significant forces on the planet.[2]

Two other demographic phenomena other than immigration make
smaller contributions to American population growth—rising life expectancy
and baby boom echoes—but it is hard to devise any useful policy
discussions around those two topics, at least as they relate to population and
the environment. Baby boom echoes are unavoidable architectural features
of the demographic landscape; only time can gradually subdue them. And
only a demographer or environmentalist with a death wish is going to
discuss policy related to human life spans, except in the context of
lengthening them.

It is also not easy to construct a politically viable discussion about
further suppressing American fertility. There are almost no other countries
that have behaved the way the U.S. has, obediently falling to and remaining
within a stone's throw of the replacement fertility level that demographers
once lazily assumed would be the universal human destiny.
Given the ongoing fear in Europe and elsewhere of below-replacement fertility, aging,
and population decline, it is unlikely that policy-makers or politicians
would take up the banner of significantly lowering American fertility below
replacement level, however sensible that might be from an environmental

American women on average want to have about two children, and
they do, even if they get there by a circuitous and uncomfortable route
which involves inadequate public health care, high unintended pregnancy
rates, substantial numbers of abortions, and large expenditures on fertility
treatments. There is plenty of room for improvement in the means, but it is
hard to argue with the ultimate results, at least if replacement fertility and
population stability are policy goals (see Figure 1).

As a practical matter, this leaves immigration as the only major policy lever for hanging the rate of United States population growth.
That is why the Sierra Cub fight, and the way some of its key combatants chose (as I
describe below) to frame the issue as an ethnic or racial one, is particularly

Playing the race card virtually ensures the end to intelligent debate on immigration (or any other)policy. Without the capacity to discuss American immigration trends and policy safely, it is essentially impossible to discuss American population growth.

This is a tragic impasse. Whether you take a national or global perspective, U.S. population policy is a debate we cannot afford to avoid indefinitely, as demographers, environmental scientists, conservationists, or policy-makers.

Average Number of Children per Woman
The Average Number of Children per woman in the U.S.A.
TFR (Historical 1931-2002)
TFR (Projected 2003-2050)

FIGURE 1. United States Total Fertility Rate (1931-2050).
Data sources: National Vital Statistics Report, Various issues (historical data 1931-
2002) U.S. Census Bureau, International Database (projections 2003-2050).

While immigration has been a perpetual theme in American history,
the level of immigration has by no means been constant; instead it more
closely resembled a roller coaster during the 20th century.

By decade, net immigration levels varied from less than zero in the 1930s to 13 million in the 1990s. The last five decades have seen a continuous rise, from about
200,000 net immigrants per year in the 1950s to an estimated 1.3 million
per year in the 1990s and first years of the 21st century (see Figure 2).

This more than fivefold increase in the last half century is the product
of the intended and unintended effects of a series of immigration laws
passed since 1965 and a large increase in illegal (or undocumented)
Legal immigration has quadrupled since the 1960s, mostly as
a result of family reunification procedures, which now account for more
than half of the legal flow. Illegal immigration is believed to have been
minimal before the 1960s, perhaps a few thousands or tens of thousands
per year, but has risen to approximately 500,000 per year, or more than

Millions of (net) immigrants per decade
Net immigration (Immigrants - Emigrants)

FIGURE 2. Net Immigration to the United States per decade 1900-2000
(estimated). Data sources: 2002 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. U.S.
Immigration and Naturalization Service (adjusted with estimates for emigration
and net illegal immigration).

one-third of current net immigration to the United States.[3] To put this in
historical perspective, the current annual net inflow of illegal immigrants
by itself is approximately equal to yearly net legal immigration between
1900 and 1930.

In the absence of any immigration restrictions (often referred to as an
‘‘open borders'' policy), it is estimated that several million people would
migrate to the United States each year. This number can obviously not be
known with any certainty, but it would be substantially higher than current
immigration levels, based on the substantial expenditures on border patrols,
the level of apprehensions, and the number of people who die trying to
reach the United States. The particular level of successful undocumented
migration appears to be more accidental than anything else. It is the convergence
and by-product of several dysfunctional policies.

Most people in the United States favor some immigration restrictions, and most would agree that the current system is in disarray, whether they advocate more or less immigration than currently occurs. Almost no one is in favor of an open borders policy, particularly in an era of terrorist threats against the United States, where unregulated movement of people poses serious security risks. Yet it is virtually impossible to hold a rational public debate about the issue. In that regard, the Sierra Club battle has been a useful if troubling lesson.

The most recent (2004) installment of the Sierra Club battle has been
characterized by both the Club leadership and the media as an effort by a
few insurgents to take over the organization and use it for non-environ-
mental purposes, particularly racially motivated ones. The reality is a great
deal more complex and spans several decades; it is very briefly summarized

One essential piece of background information is that the Sierra Club is
run more democratically than many other U.S. national environmental
organizations. Anyone can become a member by paying a minimum annual
membership fee. The entire board is elected directly by its 750,000 members,
any of whom can run for the board. Members can also place resolutions
on the annual ballot, which if passed by a majority of the voting
membership, become Club policy.

Beginning in the 1950s, the membership and leadership began to
discuss whether the frame of the Club's focus should be solely national or
also global. Because conservation policy often involves limiting access to or
use of habitat and natural resources, the debate was in part about spatial
scales and where the organization should focus its energy.

This is familiar ground-nearly every discussion of population, consumption, and the
environment revolves in part around questions of scale and boundaries.
In 1978, the Club adopted a policy stating that ‘‘all regions of the world
must reach a balance between their populations and resources...(and)...the
Sierra Club urges Congress to conduct a thorough examination of U.S.
immigration laws, policies and practices.''[4] By the 1980s, the debate in the
Sierra Club had sharpened to consideration of whether the Club should
advocate a particular policy on U.S. immigration.

After a decade of belowreplacement fertility, immigration was recognized to be the primary driver of American population growth, which in turn threatened many protected areas, ecosystems, and various conservation goals of the Sierra Club.
In the 1990s, the debate became heated. In 1991, the chair of the Sierra
Club's national population committee proposed the following resolution to
both his local board and the national board: ‘‘The U.S. should sustain
replacement level fertility (2.1 children per family); the U.S. government should enact legislation establishing an all-inclusive legal immigration ceiling set at replacement level (i.e., immigration equals emigration).''[5] The resolution did not pass, but touched off an uncomfortable and acrimonious debate. As a result, in 1996, the Sierra Club board voted to take a ‘‘neutral'' stand on immigration, hoping to short-circuit further disagreement.

In 1998, some Sierra members placed a resolution on the annual ballot
to reverse that decision and have Club advocate immigration limitations.
The issue split many prominent ecologists who otherwise agree on most
conservation issues—for instance, Edward O. Wilson of Harvard endorsed
the immigration limits proposal, while Paul and Anne Ehrlich (the latter was
a Sierra Club board member at the time) of Stanford opposed it.

After political maneuvers by the leadership which left a sour taste in the mouths
of many members, the resolution was defeated, 60-40%. The board of
directors later adopted a resolution to ‘‘take no position on U.S. immigration
levels and policies.''[6]
A few years later, Sierra Club members who supported taking a position
on immigration policy tried a different strategy. In the board elections of
2002 and 2003, they campaigned for and elected several board members
who supported their position. The election in 2004 was characterized by
both sides as a showdown—with the election of an additional three
directors (five are elected each year), the group allegedly favoring immigration
limitations could potentially control the board.[7]

The Sierra Club leadership pulled out all the stops (and the race card) to
defeat that effort. The executive director and president gave many interviews,
contending that the candidates (and some of the current board
members) were supported by or related to racist organizations.[8] For
example, in articles in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Sierra
Club President Carl Pope was quoted using the words ‘‘xenophobia,''
‘‘racists,'' ‘‘racism,'' and ‘‘Nazi'' in referring to the support for three of Sierra
Club board candidates.[9]

A group of Sierra Club supporters funded a several hundred thousand
dollar mail and web campaign to dissuade members from voting for
suspect candidates.[10] The board voted to alter the ballot and add a
strong warning against the dangers of outside interference by a list of
organizations. Two groups of candidates filed lawsuits against the board
claiming that the Sierra Club was violating its own election procedures,
but at least one was withdrawn after the Sierra Club threatened an
expensive counter-suit.

These scorched-earth tactics proved effective. In the April 2004 election,
almost 23% of the election ballots were returned, twice the turn-out
of previous elections.[11] The five board-endorsed candidates won overwhelmingly, all receiving between twice and three and half times the votes
of their closest competitors. Swept away were 12 other candidates, most of
whom ran on platforms completed unrelated to population or immigra-
tion.[12] As usual, politics surely makes for strange bedfellows.

The issue may not be resolved for long. At a meeting in late 2003, the
Sierra Club board agreed to place the immigration issue on the membership
ballot in the spring of 2005, in exchange for a delay until after the 2004 U.S.
Presidential elections. Whether this will occur after the vitriol and one-sided
results of the most recent Sierra Club board election remains to be seen.

What is relevant for the population-environment community is whether
the continued Sierra Club in-fighting and its extensive national media
coverage will help or hinder the prospects for a discussion of American
population policy, which must necessarily include immigration. As Mark
Dowie wrote nearly a decade ago ‘‘no matter what position one takes on
either population or immigration the specter of racism is close at hand in a
public discussion.''13 This sensitivity should not, however, be allowed to
foreclose science, analysis, or debate about this critical set of demographic
and environmental issues.
Here are a few observations and ideas that could facilitate civil debate:

Maintain a focus on demography and science. There is a great
deal of solid information on U.S. population trends, including immigration.
It is impossible to have an intelligent policy debate without data. Yet
in the most recent Sierra Club fight, neither side talked about facts once
race entered the debate, and the 40 or so articles in the press were
astoundingly data-free. This does both the scientific community and public
a great disservice.14
Make it safe to discuss U.S. population policy, including immigration
policy, within the demographic and environmental science communities.
Population data, trends, and policy are necessarily partly about race and
ethnicity, as are immigration levels and policies, including past and present
quota systems. Discussing immigration policy does not make one a racist,
even if racists also discuss that issue.15 That kind of guilt-by-association
tactic should not be countenanced, either by the Sierra Club (of which I
currently am a member) or by the demographic or environmental communities.
To overcome this unfortunate tendency of human nature, there will
have to be some self-policing.
Discuss fertility and immigration trends and policy at the same time.
As long as the policy objective is to affect population size or growth, it
makes little sense to discuss immigration and fertility policy in isolation
from each other. To do so invites the conclusion that there are nondemographic
motives involved. There will rarely, if ever, be a country
where fertility rates are exactly replacement level for any significant length
of time. Likewise, there are very few if any instances of countries maintaining
zero net immigration. The two sets of data and policies are necessarily
The movement of people across boundaries, whether they are park
boundaries or community, state, or national ones, is a critical part of the
population and environment field. In policy terms, national boundaries and
park boundaries may be the only two scales at which there is sufficient
political leverage (or the practical means) to control migration. From a
scientific perspective, it makes no sense to focus on population size and
movement at the scale of protected areas, communities (sprawl, etc.), and
globally, but omit the national scale and boundaries.
It is up to the Sierra Club to decide for itself in which areas it wants to
focus its energy and resources. However, that decision should be informed
by intelligent debate, rather than devolving to circumstances that chill or
foreclose an important aspect of population and environment research and

In the long run, the population trends and policy of the United States
are of critical importance to not only the field of population and environment
research, but also to many economic, social, and environmental
challenges facing the world. America is not only the planet's largest consumer
and polluter, it is also sets an example by which much of the rest of
the world models its demographic and economic policies, political priorities,
and even individual behavior, for better or worse. It is unwise to either
avoid or stifle scientific and public debate about U.S. population policy. To
accomplish that, we have to learn how to discuss immigration without
descending into name-calling.




Meyerson, F.A.B., Population biodiversity and changing climate, pp. 83-90 in Hannah L. & Lovejoy, T.E. (Eds.), Climate Change and Biodiversity: Synergistic Impacts, Advances in Applied Biodiversity Science, No. 4, August 2003. U.S. per capita carbon dioxide emissions have fluctuated somewhat, but are the same in 2003 as they were in 1970. See also Meyerson, F.A.B. (1998). ‘‘Population, Carbon Emissions and Global Warming: The Forgotten Relationship at Kyoto'', Population and Development Review, 24(1), 115-130,

The official net immigration estimate projections for 2000-2050 are somewhat lower,
between 1 and 1.1 million per year (see http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/usinterimproj/idbsummeth.html). However, unofficially, many demographers consider the actual number to be around 1.5 million annually, with 0.2 million emigrants (net annual immigration of about 1.3 million).

Policy adopted by the Sierra Club Board of Directors, May 6-7, 1978. A chronological list of Sierra Club resolutions related to population policy from 1965 through 2003 can be found at http://www.sierraclub.org/policy/conservation/population.asp.

Dowie, M. 1995. Losing ground: American environmentalism at the close of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Adopted by the Board of Directors, September 25-26, 1999; amended by the Board of Directors, September 19, 2003, http://www.sierraclub.org/policy/conservation/popula-
tion.asp. The complete language of the board's resolution is somewhat circular. ‘‘The
Sierra Club supports the decision of the Board of Directors to take no position on U.S. immigration levels and policies.''

In reality, each of the candidates espoused different positions on a broad array of issues controversial to the Sierra Club, including immigration and animal rights. One of the candidates, Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University, was accused of being ‘‘antiimmigrant'' or allied with those who hold those beliefs but in fact specifically stated that he had no position on immigration. ‘‘Currently, I hold a neutral position on immigration.''

Barringer, F. (2004). Bitter Division for the Sierra Club on Immigration. The New York
Times, March 16. pp. A1, A16.

www.groundswellsierra.org. In addition, Moveon.org also became involved and urged
voting against the suspect candidates, without naming them. A web-site favoring candidates not supported by the Sierra Club leadership, including some who favor immigration limits, was also established (www.sierrademocracy.org).

For the 2004 election results, see http://www.sierraclub.org/bod/2004election/.

Ironically, the only two African-Americans who ran for the board were among those
soundly defeated. One of them had previously been on the board; the other African-
American, Frank Morris, had been described by the Sierra Club leadership as one of the three ‘‘insurgents'' who were ‘‘in bed with racists.'' Barringer, Felicity, ‘‘Bitter Division for Sierra Club on Immigration,'' The New York Times, March 16, 2004.

Dowie further observed that environmental groups often find it easier to duck the
immigration issue. ‘‘Under these circumstances, the best, and most polite thing to do is to table all motions-a decision difficult to explain to foundations hoping for some action from their grants.'' Dowie, M. (1995). Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

The mis-representation or distortion of demographic data and analysis by the media is a chronic concern. See, e.g., Teitelbaum, M.S. (2004). ‘‘The media marketplace for garbled demography,'' Population and Development Review 30(2), 317-327.

One of the most distressing aspects of the Sierra Club fight for me has been to observe decent people, including fellow scientists, tarred unfairly with racially related epithets.

Frederick A.B. Meyerson is a Visiting Scholar at the Population Reference Bureau and is currently writing a book about American population policy, which will be published by Smithsonian Books in 2005. The views expressed herein are solely his own.
He can be reached by E-mail at
fmeyerson@prb.org Population and Environment, Vol. 26, No. 1, September 2004 2004 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 61 

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