07/28/2010 04:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Greenwash: Nativists Cynically Working to Co-Opt Environmental Movement

A quarter of a century ago, John Tanton, a white nationalist who would go on to almost singlehandedly construct the contemporary, hard-line anti-immigration movement, wrote about his secret desire to bring the Sierra Club, the nation's largest environmental organization, into the nativist fold. He spelled out his motive clearly: Using an organization perceived by the public as part of the liberal left would insulate nativists from charges of racism -- charges that, given the explicitly pro-"European-American" advocacy of Tanton and many of his allies over the years, would likely otherwise stick.

In the ensuing decades, nativist forces followed Tanton's script, making several attempts to win over the Sierra Club and its hundreds of thousands of members. That effort culminated in 2004, when nativists mounted a serious effort to take over the Sierra Club's board of directors, an attempt that was beaten back only after a strenuous campaign by Sierra Club members and groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center. The attempt was a classic case of "greenwashing" -- a cynical effort by nativist activists to seduce environmentalists to join their cause for purely strategic reasons.

Now, the greenwashers are back. In the last few years, right-wing groups have paid to run expensive advertisements in liberal publications that explicitly call on environmentalists and other "progressives" to join their anti-immigration cause. They've created an organization called Progressives for Immigration Reform that purports to represent liberals who believe immigration must be radically curtailed in order to preserve the American environment. They've constructed websites accusing immigrants of being responsible for urban sprawl, traffic congestion, overconsumption and a host of other environmental evils. Time and again, they have suggested that immigration is the most important issue for conservationists.

The hypocrisy of these come-ons can be astounding. The group headed by Roy Beck, one of the key activists leading the efforts, has given close to half a million dollars to a far-right news service that has described global warming as a hoax. Tanton's wife, who works hand in glove with her husband, runs an anti-immigration political action committee (PAC) that funds candidates with abysmal environmental voting records. The congressional allies of John Tanton, Beck and the other greenwashers are organized into an anti-immigration caucus whose members have even worse environmental voting records than the beneficiaries of Mary Lou Tanton's PAC. John Tanton's U.S. Inc., a foundation set up to fund nativist groups, spent about $150,000 on a highly conservative fundraising agency whose client list includes several major anti-environmental organizations.

This new wave of greenwashing attempts, in particular the formation of Progressives for Immigration Reform as a purported group of "liberals," is only the latest attempt by nativist forces to appear as something they are not. The white-dominated Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the most important of the groups founded by Tanton, has been behind the creation of three other front groups that supposedly represented African Americans (Choose Black America), Latino Americans (You Don't Speak for Me!) and labor (Coalition for the Future American Worker). In fact, FAIR had its own white spokesman double as a press representative for the first two organizations. Another group unrelated to FAIR, Vietnamese for Fair Immigration, turned out to be led by a white man who used a fake Vietnamese surname and whose only connection to that country was that he liked the food.

The arguments being made by the nativists today -- in a nutshell, that immigration drives population increase and that a growing population is the main driver of environmental degradation -- have in the last 15 years been rejected by the mainstream of the environmental movement as far too simplistic. The allegation that immigrants are responsible for urban sprawl, for example, ignores the fact that most immigrants live in dense, urban neighborhoods and do not contribute significantly to suburban or exurban sprawl. In a similar way, most conservationists have come to believe that many of the world's most intractable environmental problems, including global warming, can only be solved by dealing with them on a worldwide, not a nation-by-nation, basis.

The greenwashers are wolves in sheep's clothing, right-wing nativists who are doing their best to seduce the mainstream environmental movement in a bid for legitimacy and more followers. John Tanton, the man who originally devised the strategy, is in fact far more concerned with the impact of Latino and other non-white immigration on a "European-American" culture than on conservation. Most of the greenwashers are men and women of the far right, hardly "progressives."

Environmentalists need to be aware of so-called "progressives for immigration reform" and their true motives. These individuals and organizations do not see protecting the environment as their primary goal -- on the contrary, the nativists are first and foremost about radically restricting immigration. Environmentalists should not fall for their rhetoric.