Would Mother Earth Vote for Trump? Environmentalism and the Anti-Immigration Movement

By Ann Horwitz

Those who pay attention to U.S. politics typically associate the American conservative movement with a hardline stance on immigration policy. More than that, though, many also conflate political conservatism and outright hostility towards immigrants themselves. The temptation to make this connection is perfectly understandable in light of the current Republican presidential primary contest, where the fearmongering nativism of Donald Trump’s campaign has snagged most of the headlines. It is certainly true that ethnocentrism underlies some of the anti-immigration reform sentiment on the right—ugly rhetoric abounds—but it is equally true that American conservatism is ideologically diverse, and that not all of its objections to a progressive immigration policy are rooted in racism.

Just as we tend to associate conservatism with anti-immigration views, we tend to think of those anti-immigration views as bundled together with a host of other right-wing views. If we know that a person holds opinion x, we are comfortable assuming that he also believes y, in what Converse explained as the principle of constraint in belief systems. For example, knowing a person to be opposed to immigration reform, I might conclude that she is also a registered Republican, anti-gun control, and a climate change denier. All, some, or none of those conclusions might be correct. Of course, plenty of empirical work (and common sense) supports the correlation of certain political views. As social scientists, though, it behooves us to look at exceptions and twists, to puzzle out how a movement creates meaning that belies what we think we know about our political culture. For the moment, I will focus on the example of Greenwashers: activists who oppose immigration on environmentalist grounds.

Adhering to the view of American conservative ideology as a constrained belief system, one might expect someone who opposes immigration reform to also doubt the reality of climate change. While that equation might obtain for some in the conservative movement, it most certainly does not apply to all. Over the last three or four decades, something of a sub-movement on the right has emerged that contests immigration because, in the view of its adherents, immigration harms the planet. With its intellectual seed in Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (published in 1968 by no less a left-associated group than the Sierra Club), this movement rests on two assertions: 1) overpopulation causes environmental degradation, and 2) immigration exacerbates overpopulation. Therefore, in these activists’ view, immigration must be curbed to protect the environment.

From a sociological standpoint, this movement has much to teach us about framing. As an anti-immigration movement, it stands on the same side as those who couch their views in explicitly racist frames (e.g., the KKK) and in thinly veiled racist frames (e.g., Donald Trump). Its own framing, however, is entirely race-neutral and, indeed, tied to a concern for the environment more commonly associated with the political left than with the right. The movement’s roots, it must be said, are less innocent than its race-neutral framing would suggest.

The Southern Poverty Law Center uses the term “greenwash” to describe these activists’ framing and tactics because of the racism at the source of their movement. John Tanton, whom SPLC calls the “architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement,” is both an avowed white nationalist and the originator of a number anti-immigration groups, all part of an organizational web that has grown in number since the 1970s. Tanton was chair of the Sierra Club’s National Population Committee in the early to mid-seventies, where his influence precipitated heated internal debates about what the organization’s stance on immigration should be; these battles lasted long after his tenure there was through. Savvy enough to grasp that explicitly racist appeals might not aid recruitment to their cause, these groups that have emerged from Tanton’s shadow “greenwash” their ideology by framing their anti-immigration stance as environmentalist, not racist.

SPLC identifies twenty-four organizations (listed below) that have developed out of Tanton’s original efforts, some with which he is or has been involved himself, and some with which he has not. The groups occupy a spectrum of more or less racially tinged framing of the issues; some talk about immigration in overtly racist terms (in fact, seven are designated hate groups by the SPLC), while others do not. All of them, however, aim to turn concern for the environment into anti-immigration activism among a broader swath of the public than would respond to race-based anti-immigrant rhetoric. Further, some of these groups not only avoid the race frame, they actively adopt a more egalitarian frame, claiming that the burden wrought by overpopulation will fall hardest on poor people in underdeveloped countries. For example, the Center for Immigration Studies bills itself proudly as “Low-immigration, Pro-immigrant.”

A cynic might say that the groups on SPLC’s Greenwasher list are putting up a front, trying to make xenophobia palatable by dressing it up in nature-loving, poverty-conscious clothing—in other words, that they are really and truly greenwashing their beliefs and motivations. Perhaps the environmentalist framing is nothing more than a tactic to mobilize support and garner new adherents to the anti-immigration movement’s cause. On the other hand, it is intellectually uncharitable to dismiss a movement as disingenuous simply because many of us disagree with its aims. As researchers, we ought to put the cynics’ hypothesis to the test. For the field of social movement studies, the case of “immigration-reduction environmentalists” presents an opportunity to learn something that may confirm or confound our expectations about the belief system underlying American conservatism, a movement ripe for sociological examination.

Anti-immigration organizations listed by SPLC (asterisk indicates that the group is classified by SPLC as a hate group):
1. Americans for Immigration Control*
2. America’s Leadership Team for Long Range Population-Immigration-Resource Planning
3. Alliance for Stabilizing America’s Population
4. Apply The Brakes
5. Californians for Population Stabilization
6. Council of Conservative Citizens*
7. California Coalition for Immigration Reform*
8. Carrying Capacity Network
9. California Coalition to Stabilize Population
10. Center for Immigration Studies
11. Cornelia Scaife May Foundation
12. Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)*
13. Immigration Reform Law Institute (legal arm of FAIR)
14. Izaak Walton League of America
15. Negative Population Growth
16. NumbersUSA
17. Population-Environment Balance
18. Pioneer Fund*
19. Progressives for Immigration Reform
20. Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization
21. The Social Contract/The Social Contract Press*
22. U.S. English
23. VDARE*
24. Zero Population Growth (a.k.a. Population Connection)

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants and Refugees

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