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Immigration issue causes bitter dispute within Sierra Club | (KRT) One of the nation's pre-eminent environmental organizations is in the middle of a rancorous internal dispute over how to approach the highly charged issue of immigration.

With the future direction of the Sierra Club possibly hanging on the outcome of an election taking place through April 21, accusations are flying of corruption and McCarthyism - not to mention the specter of xenophobia and racism some club officials have said is lurking behind the scenes.

Beneath the muck is a reality that any environmentalist worth his club card is willing to admit: People are a drain on the planet.

How to address that, however, is hotly disputed.

The Sierra Club's leadership says overpopulation is a global problem and should be addressed on a global level. The leaders also say U.S. policies on agriculture and trade should be adjusted to improve the lives of potential immigrants in their home countries.

But a contingent of Sierra Club members has grown frustrated with that approach. After failing six years ago to convince the club's membership to take a harder line on immigration, several immigration reform candidates have been elected to its 15-member board of directors.

Today, the conventional wisdom is that three more immigration-control supporters on the Sierra Club board would be enough to tip the balance and put the 750,000-member club on track to take much harder positions on immigration.

Enter three high-profile candidates backed by immigration reform advocates. The candidates have little experience in the Sierra Club but hold impressive credentials on environmental issues and civil rights: former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, Cornell entomologist David Pimentel and Frank Morris, the former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

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Sierra Club officials say those three represent an attempt to hijack the club by outsiders who are backed by immigration control organizations.

Those groups, club officials say, are working with a group of immigration-control-minded Sierra Club members called SUSPS, or Support U.S. Population Stablization, that was formed to pass the club's ill-fated 1998 immigration control measure.

"The issue is not Lamm, Morris or Pimentel," said Sierra Club director Carl Pope. "The issue is SUSPS. And SUSPS has become infected with the virus of xenophobia. It's very ugly, and the Sierra Club wants no part of it."

One Sierra Club official, who asked not to be identified because of concern about appearing to be campaigning in violation of club elections rules, predicted many employees would quit rather than work on immigration control policies.

"These people have one agenda. They want to take all our resources and put in on that one thing. We didn't come here to work on immigration," the club official said.

Sierra Club officials were alerted about interest in the election by outside groups last fall when the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, sent a letter to Sierra Club president Larry Fahn. The letter attempted to link the effort to influence the Sierra Club election with hate groups.

Bitter debate within the Sierra Club over fundamental issues is not unusual. But several club officials said they could not recall any conflict as rancorous as this one.

In January, 13 past presidents of the Sierra Club sounded a further alarm, saying the club was facing a "hostile takeover," and that the crisis "can well be fatal" to the organization.

"These outsiders' desire is to capture the majority of seats so as to move their personal agenda, without regard to the wishes or knowledge of the members and supporters of the Sierra Club, and to use the funds and other resources of the club to those ends," the former presidents wrote in a joint letter that they described as unprecedented.

Lamm, who was governor of Colorado from 1975 to 1987, said he was stung.

"I'm hurt," he said. "My character has never been drawn into question like this in 33 years of Colorado politics. I'm outraged that this small clique trying to hold power would stoop to this level of environmental McCarthyism."

But Lamm, who helped organize an NAACP chapter as a student at the University of California in 1959, acknowledged the questionable history of attempts to control immigration. He argued that times have changed and it is now time to more tightly control the nation's borders.

"This is a new issue that we ought to talk about," he said. "Because of its unsavory past, the burden of proof needs to be on us."

Demographic forecasters say California's population, now at about 35 million, will swell to 46 million by 2020.

During the 1990s, an estimated 245,000 people immigrated to California from other countries each year, and about half of those were undocumented, according to Linda Gage, a researcher in the state Department of Finance who was citing federal government statistics.

Fahn, the Sierra Club president, said that if the immigration control advocates take over the Sierra Club, the damage to the organization's ability to influence environmental policies could subside.

"The Sierra Club will survive," Fahn said. "But I think it will be tarnished substantially."

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© 2004, Contra Costa Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services