A Brief Chronology of the Sierra Club's Retreat from the Immigration-Population Connection (Updated)

By Matthew Sussis on August 14, 2018

Update of Jerry Kammer's 2016 blog post on the Sierra Club.


The Sierra Club, one of America's largest non-profit environmental organizations, once treated the effects of immigration-driven population growth as among the most serious concerns facing America's environment.

However, over the past few decades, the organization has continually retreated from that position toward neutrality — and more recently has openly lobbied for higher levels of immigration into the United States. In fact, the club is now starting to launch partisan attacks on the current administration over everything from family separation and detentions along the border to amnesty for illegal aliens to the border wall.

How did we get here? How did one of America's oldest and most highly respected environmental organizations stray so far from its original outlook? It involves activists, changes in leadership, and big money. Below is a brief chronology of how the Sierra Club retreated from its views on population stabilization and immigration:

1980. A Sierra Club representative testified before the federal Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, saying: "It is obvious that the number of immigrants the United States accepts affects our population size and growth rate. It is perhaps less well known the extent to which immigration policy, even more than the number of children per family, is the determinant of the future numbers of Americans."

1989. The club's board adopted this policy position: "Immigration to the United States should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the United States." The board sought to avoid offending ethnic sensibilities with the further declaration: "The Sierra Club will lend its voice to the congressional debate on legal immigration issues when appropriate, and then only on the issue of the number of immigrants — not where they come from or their category, since it is the fact of increasing numbers that affects population growth and ultimately, the quality of the environment."

1992. A few weeks after Carl Pope became the club's executive director, he presented his views in a letter to the editor of the New York Times. Pope wrote that the club believed that all nations "should act to curb their own population growth." He added: "The United States and other developed nations have a special responsibility because of our disproportionate per capita consumption of world resources. Our goal in the United States should be achieving domestic population stabilization."

1996. Under pressure from immigration activists, the club's board adopted a position of neutrality, declaring, "The board's actions reflect a desire to put the immigration debate to rest within the club and to focus on other pressing components of our population program. The board instructs all club chapters, groups, committees, and other entities to take no position on immigration policy."

1998. In response to the neutrality declaration, a group called Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization (SUSPS) brought the issue to club membership in the club annual election. The National Journal reported that prominent Sierran Anne Ehrlich, a long-time advocate of reduced immigration, had taken the position that the club could not act on the immigration-population connection as long as its minority-group members saw racism as the underlying motivation of those who wanted to limit immigration. The SUSPS proposal to reverse the neutrality declaration and restore the club's previous advocacy for immigration limits was defeated about 60-40 after a heated campaign, which involved club president Adam Werbach calling environmentalists who supported SUSPS and urging them to rescind their support. Ultimately, the club's leaders were horrified that SUSPS even managed to get the vote as close as it did. Pope celebrated the results in an essay for the Christian Science Monitor in which he also acknowledged the importance of the global population issue. The club, he said, had been "wrestling with a critical question not just for the Sierra Club, but for the nation and the world. Where do we draw the front line in the fight to reduce overpopulation — one of the most serious threats to our environment? ... The issue won't go away. Americans have some big decisions to make."

2004. In another vote, club membership defeated an effort to elect immigration-limitation advocates to its board. SUSPS knew that if it could secure 3 of the 5 seats in the vote, it would be able to form a majority and oust Carl Pope. This vote followed a controversial and heated campaign in which Pope and other club leaders contended that those who wanted to limit immigration were motivated by racist bigotry. "By pulling up the gangplank on immigration, they are tapping into a strand of misanthropy that says human beings are a problem," Pope said.

That same year, the Los Angeles Times reported that David Gelbaum, an American businessman focused on green technology who has donated at least $200 million to the Sierra Club, had warned Carl Pope that his donations were contingent upon how the club handled the issue of immigration. "I did tell Carl Pope in 1994 or 1995 that if they ever came out anti-immigration, they would never get a dollar from me," the Times reported he said.

2010. Michael Brune succeeded Carl Pope as executive director. Brune had previously led the Rainforest Action Network, where he pressured corporations to stop selling wood from endangered forests. Brune largely avoided the topic of immigration in his first several years as director, and the club continued to receive donations from Gelbaum.

2013. The Sierra Club's board adopted a resolution calling for legal status for all illegal aliens living in the country, but said the resolution was "not modifying the underlying policy on immigration" of the organization. In a statement, the Sierra Club defended its decision by saying that many immigrants "live in areas with disproportionate levels of toxic air, water, and soil production" and thus deserved to move to cleaner countries.

2017. In a statement, the club praised DACA, President Obama's executive action that granted deferrals from deportation to some illegal aliens who were brought to the country as children, and condemned President Trump for deciding to terminate it. Executive Director Michael Brune said it was "mean-spirited" of Trump to terminate DACA and that DACA recipients "are making our country better." These remarks were noteworthy in that they were the first time that the club publicized its position on a specific immigration-related policy. Previously, the club had offered general statements supporting "immigrants' rights", but not concrete endorsements.

2018. After the precedent set by its comments on DACA, in 2018 the club began putting out frequent statements condemning a range of immigration-related policies under the Trump administration. For example, in April, Brune said the Sierra Club opposed the construction of a border wall and of the administration's push to speed up deportation proceedings, calling it "xenophobic". In June, in response to the "zero tolerance" policy and family separations at the border, the club attacked the administration for its decision to "jail and cage kids", and Brune called for a stop to "Trump's racist agenda".