A Response to Amy Mehta's Call to Strip the 'Mask'

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on January 14, 2010

One of the reasons I came to work at CIS a year ago was that I wanted to oppose the effort by some who favor increased immigration to stifle debate by impugning the motives of those, including CIS, who make a case for reduced immigration. That smear campaign, led by the National Council of La Raza and their allies at the Southern Poverty Law Center, seeks to present us as part of an "anti-immigrant" cabal whose claims to be concerned about the economic, environmental, and social consequences of immigration are merely a mask that seeks to cover our bigotry and xenophobia.

So it was no surprise to read an Alternet post by Amy Mehta advancing this theme as she attacked the report I wrote about the Sierra Club's position on immigration policy. Mehta claims that the report was part of a broader effort by "politically extreme organizations that purport to care about environmental preservation/conservation (and) are using this alarming issue to promote their anti-immigrant agendas."

Then she issues a call for righteous action, declaring:

"There is no room for hatred, racism, discrimination and division in the environmental movement. What can we do about this? For starters, we can be discerning. Who are the authors and organizations behind what we read? What have they done for the causes they claim to support? One of the most important steps in combating racism is ensuring that individuals and organizations that care about the environment are not fooled by those who mask their true intentions and pretend to be something they are not."

Ms. Mehta, the accusation that progressive concerns about the effects of mass immigration are a mask for bigotry is, at best, an indication of your callowness and naivete. At worst, it is an example of an intellectual bigotry and self-righteousness that I had long associated with the extreme right, before learning that it is also widespread on the left.

I won't speak for other progressives who share my concerns about immigration. But if you seek to probe my background, here are some items that you would undoubtedly be disappointed to find. I was a volunteer teacher on the Navajo Reservation. I wrote an acclaimed book that criticized federal policy aimed at solving a long and bitter land dispute between the Navajos and Hopis. For my reporting on the living conditions of workers in the maquiladora factories along the Mexican border I won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for humanitarian reporting. For reporting that was instrumental in the efforts of a former executive of a Chinese government-owned corporation to win political asylum, I won the Don Bolles Award for investigative reporting. In the late 1980s, when I was living in Phoenix, I used my ability to speak Spanish as a volunteer at an elementary school where the staff scrambled to meet the needs of an influx of children from Mexico. As a reporter in the Washington Bureau of Copley News Service, I conducted informal English-language classes for the Central American immigrants who cleaned our offices every night.

There's more about my motivations here and here.

I'd also point out that one of the leaders of the effort to persuade the Sierra Club to return to its position of favoring immigration policy aimed at stabilizing the U.S. population was the late Gaylord Nelson. The senator from Wisconsin and founder of Earth Day was a lifelong liberal activist infuriated by the smear tactics that sought to stifle the immigration debate at the Sierra Club. "People have been silenced because they are scared to death of being charged with being a racist," he said. "But racism has nothing to do with it. It's a question of numbers."

Moreover, the late David Brower, a towering figure in Sierra Club history, vented his frustration with the Club’s political correctness on immigration policy when he resigned from the board in 2000 and declared, "Overpopulation is perhaps the biggest problem facing us, and immigration is part of that problem. It has to be addressed." Brower added this denunciation of the board: "The world is burning and all I hear from them is the music of violins. The planet is being trashed, but the board has no real sense of urgency."

Your sense of urgency, Ms. Mehta, is misplaced.

Topics: UnidosUS