Are immigrants to the United States potential allies in the fight to stem pollution and resource depletion around the world? Or are they a big reason for environmental degradation and growing consumption in America?
It is a moral and political debate that is emerging as one of the most divisive issues facing the nation's leading environmental groups. And it's caused a split within the oldest and perhaps most influential of those groups - the Sierra Club.
Next month, the organization's 550,000 members will be asked whether the group's official policy should change from one of neutrality on immigration to one that advocates a "reduction in net immigration." The vote will provide an important indicator of how conservationists nationwide view the issue, and it may provide a glimpse of what direction the debate will take.
There is no doubt that immigrants swell the US population - they now account for most of a US population-increase rate that surpasses all of Europe and even many developing countries. Still, for many people, the choice is a tough one to make.
"Their story very often is a poignant one," says Alan Kuper, a retired physics professor in Cleveland and longtime Sierra Club activist. "But any way you calculate it, there are simply too many people in the United States."
"I would never say that immigrants are causing this any more than people born here," Mr. Kuper says. "But once they're here, we're all in this together."
The present jump in immigrants began in 1990, when the Immigration Reform Act opened US doors to the families of many immigrants. Legal immigration went up 40 percent to about 1 million a year. (Illegal immigration each year is estimated to add at least another 200,000 permanent residents.)
Some argue that immigrants are inclined to adopt a more consumption-oriented lifestyle as their economic situation improves. Others note that this is a global issue and say a liberal US immigration policy also acts as a "safety valve" for high-population countries from which people emigrate. That makes it easier to avoid dealing with environmental problems there.
On the other hand, census figures show, immigrant couples tend to have smaller families here than they likely would have in their home country.
The issue also gets to a more basic problem environmentalists (especially the big national groups) have had: the appearance of disregard for the working class, especially minorities.
"The fact of the matter is, this movement has not been particularly inclusive of ethnic minorities," says Charles Kamasaki, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino-rights group in Washington. Two directors on the Sierra Club's 15-member board are African-American, for example, and the group has never had a Latino director.
Meanwhile, the debate over the vote has gotten somewhat nasty. Advocates of the proposal to restrict immigration have been accused by opponents of the "greening of hate" and of stirring "white fear of a brown planet."
The fact that John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, was himself an immigrant (from Scotland) is not lost on some.
"He was basically just off the boat," club president Adam Webach said on CNN last week. "So it's pretty strange for the Sierra Club to be in a debate questioning whether we should get involved in immigration control."
On the other hand, says Alan Kuper, leader of the effort to change club policy, "John Muir did not settle for short-term goals nor for nonenvironmental agendas in the name of pragmatism or to avoid controversy."
For many environmental activists, however, it's hard to take a tough stand against all those huddled masses yearning to breathe free and boot-strap themselves to a better life - especially when this could turn off potential members and donors among fellow progressives. Even the club's co-chair of the national population committee is against the proposal.
"We could stop immigration tomorrow, but would this save the environment? Absolutely not," says Karen Kalla of Poolesville, Md. "For the most part, people who immigrate to this country are not the ones who have the greatest [environmental] impact in terms of lifestyle."
"It's easier for us to say let's keep those people out so we can use our air conditioners and cars," she adds.
Leaders of other environmental groups have staked out their position on the issue. Lining up with Kuper and those wanting to reduce annual immigration to "replacement level" (about 200,000 a year) are Earth First! founder Dave Foreman; Paul Watson, head of Sea Shepherds; Rainforest Action Network head Randy Hayes; and former Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who organized the first Earth Day in 1970.
Wilderness Society policy states that "to bring population levels to ecologically sustainable levels, both birth rates and immigration rates need to be reduced." Plus, the 1996 report of the President's Council on Sustainable Development acknowledged that "this is a sensitive issue, but reducing immigration levels is a necessary part of population stabilization and the drive toward sustainability."
On the other side of the debate are the Earth Island Institute, founded by legendary environmental activist David Brower; Greenpeace USA; the San Francisco-based Political Ecology Group; other organizations advocating "environmental justice" on behalf of ethnic and racial minorities; and even some population-control activists.
Zero Population Growth (ZPG), for example, is lobbying against drastically reduced immigration as envisioned by some Sierra Club members.
For their part, supporters of minority ethnic groups are wary of anything that could further stir up animosity against those now legitimately coming to the US.
"It's quite an extreme proposal," says Mr. Kamasaki. "It would prevent hundreds of thousands of families from reuniting, and it would cause the greatest reduction in immigration since the Know-Nothing movement in the 1800s."