Anti-Immigrant Groups Trying to Lure Support from Environmentalists

Environmental protection was not exactly high on the agenda at the 2011 Conservative Political Action conference in February. So a beautifully photographed report on the health of the Chesapeake Bay was a surprising standout in the exhibition hall -- at least until closer inspection. "Immigration, Population Growth and the Chesapeake Bay" is the latest sign that blaming immigrants for environmental degradation has joined other immigrant-demonizing strategies as a favored tactic of the anti-immigration movement.

There is no question that the health of the Chesapeake Bay is an urgent problem. Federal and state officials have been working for years to reduce the flood of pollutants that have led to steep declines in fish and shellfish populations. To date, they have not been very successful.

Enter the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the anti-immigration lobbying group, to steer those concerned about the health of the Chesapeake in a new direction. According to FAIR's slick report:

Overpopulation in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is symptomatic of the impact that immigration-driven population growth is having across the United States...Immediate and decisive action must be taken, with the federal government leading the way by reducing immigration levels in order to achieve U.S. population stability.

Citing troubling data about the health of the Chesapeake Bay taken from actual environmental groups, FAIR calls on those who care about the Bay's health to join FAIR's anti-immigrant crusade. "We must stop growing," the report proclaims, and the only way to do that is to shut the door on immigrants. The report urges activists to raise the issue at local chapter meetings of groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon Society.

FAIR is at the center of a network of anti-immigration organizations founded by nativist John Tanton, who continues to serve on its board. Tanton is an ophthalmologist who headed the Sierra Club's population committee in the 1970s, and, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "kept moving to the right, eventually coming to embrace an array of eugenicists, white nationalists and race scientists as he increasingly viewed 'European-American' society as under threat."

Tanton's history is a reminder that questions surrounding population have long been contentious within the environmental movement. In 1996, the Sierra Club adopted a policy of neutrality on immigration policy; in 2004, anti-immigration forces waged a fierce battle to take over the Club's board of directors, and were overwhelmingly defeated.

But anti-immigration leaders have created and fostered an array of organizations designed to enlist environmentalists, groups with names like "Progressives for Immigration Reform." In 2008, a coalition of these groups targeted pro-environment liberals directly with ads in publications like the Nation, Harper's and the New York Times.

FAIR's report on the Chesapeake says that the group "advocates for less consumption" and "more environmentally conscious policies." But that claim is hard to reconcile with FAIR's alliances with right-wing politicians.

Last summer, the Southern Poverty Law Center published "Greenwash: Nativists, Environmentalism, & the Hypocrisy of Hate," which examines the miserable environmental records of the anti-immigration movement's political champions. According to the report, members of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, headed by former FAIR lobbyist Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., have an average score from the League of Conservation Voters of 11 percent. Notes the report, "One of them, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has called global warming 'the biggest hoax ever.' Another, nativist hardliner and former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, received a paltry 3% score [from the League of Conservation Voters.]"

There is a simple explanation for the difference between anti-immigrant groups' claimed concern for the environment and their support for anti-environment politicians: It's a ploy to divide progressives. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies was asked during a panel at the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference why the group published articles that supported global warming. He said it was simply to force a wedge between different people on the left.

Trying to blunt the effectiveness of that wedge strategy is the Center for New Community, a national community organizing group whose website includes a collection of articles, essays, and charts on nativist organizations and their outreach to environmentalists. CNC worries that respected environmentalists who adopt the population-control rhetoric of anti-immigrant groups could threaten "fragile coalitions" that are working to engage people of color, labor and human rights organizations on issues like climate change and "green jobs."

One challenge facing organizers is overcoming the difficulty in talking about these issues. Some environmentalists say that fear of being associated with hate groups makes it harder to have a constructive conversation about the environmental impacts of a growing population. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant groups charge that "political correctness" is squelching debate on population issues; FAIR's Chesapeake Bay report derides "so-called" environmental groups for not fighting for reduced immigration.

Tom Horton, a retired journalist who has written about the Chesapeake for years, has his doubts about FAIR but believes questions about the impact of continued economic and population growth need to be addressed. "Are immigrants killing the Bay? Of course not," he says. "Is adding more and more people to the Bay watershed having an impact on the Bay? Hell, yeah."

Horton, noting that half of the Bay's pollution is from agricultural runoff, says you can't blame immigrants for pollution from farms in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He says policymakers have tools at their disposal, like "downzoning" to control the growth of housing and its impacts on infrastructure and the environment. But economic pressures and lack of political will mean that many of those tools aren't being used very effectively.

Professor Elizabeth Hartmann of Hampshire College, who contributed an essay to the SPLC's "Greenwash" report, says there's a difference between talking about the impacts of population and "the greening of hate." But she worries that mainstream environmentalists can give credibility to anti-immigrant extremists by making population itself a major issue rather than policies that deal with sprawl, zoning regulations, lack of affordable housing in urban centers, and other issues.

"It's not so much the number of people that matters, but how they live," says Hartmann. "It's never just population per se. You end up blaming the poorest people who are most vulnerable rather than the powerful interests who are shaping the economic and environmental infrastructure."

For its part, the Center for New Community says it does not want to stop conversation:

There should be no taboo on discussing population -- a topic clearly tied to environmental concerns, as in fact is every human interaction within ecological systems. What should be rejected are racism and simplistic arguments that over-emphasize the "numbers game" at the expense of other factors -- interlocking issues of production and consumption, patterns of land use, technology and planning, globalization and poverty, the status of women in society, as well as wasteful cycles of boom and bust.

Says the CNC's Rebecca Poswolsky, "The question becomes who is at the table, who we want to be participating in these discussions. If we're really talking about sustainability, scapegoating immigrants is not a solution. It keeps them out of the dialogue altogether."

The CNC is asking environmental leaders and activists to sign a pledge that describes anti-immigrant environmentalism as a "dangerous form of eco-politics" and calls for a green movement that engages immigrants as allies in the search for environmental sustainability. 


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