Capture Blacks' Intense Debate over Immigration
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media
Los Angeles: Two things happened
within a day of each other this month that rammed
race back into the debate over illegal immigration.
A Field Poll in California found that blacks by
a bigger percentage than whites, and even American-born
Latinos, back liberal immigration reform measures.
The very next day, a spirited group of black activists
marched in front of the Los Angeles office of popular
and outspoken black California House Democrat Maxine
Waters, protesting her firm support of citizenship
for illegal immigrants.
The protesters claimed that the overwhelming majority
of blacks oppose illegal immigration. They denounced
black leaders such as Waters, Jesse Jackson and
Al Sharpton for allegedly selling out black interests
by backing immigration reform. The Field Poll findings
and the flap between Waters and the black anti-immigration
protesters is another painful example of the deep
fissure that the illegal immigration debate has
opened among blacks.
The Field Poll is accurate, but only up to a point.
The majority of blacks instinctively pull for the
underdog, especially if the underdog is poor and
non-white. The majority of illegal immigrants fit
that bill, and much more. Many come from countries
plagued by civil war and economic destitution. They
work jobs that pay scant wages with minimal or non-existent
labor protections. Blacks suffered decades of Jim
Crow segregation, violence and poverty. Many liken
the marches, rallies and political lobbying by immigrant
rights groups to the civil rights struggles of the
1960s. Then there's the faint but fond memory of
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor Peoples Campaign
in 1968. The aim was to unite blacks, Latinos, American
Indians, and poor whites in a campaign for economic
justice. Against the opposition of some civil rights
activists, King actively courted Latino leaders.
Blacks also cringe at the thought that they could
be perceived as racial bigots. When pollsters ask
blacks their opinions on issues that deal with civil
rights and racial justice, they reflexively give
the response that will cast them in the most favorable
racial light on these issues. Yet, like many whites,
a significant number of blacks privately express
doubts, even animosity, toward illegal immigrants.
The month before the results of the Field Poll were
announced, a poll by the Pew Research Center found
that many blacks were hostile toward illegal immigrants.
The sore point with them was jobs. They blamed illegal
immigrants for worsening the dire plight of young,
poor African-American males. Recent studies by researchers
at Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton, and the Urban
League's annual State of Black America report confirm
that black males suffer a jobless rate double and
triple that of white males in some urban areas.
Their unemployment numbers are also substantially
higher than those of Latino males. Some economists
and employment studies finger illegal immigration
as a big cause of the economic slippage of low and
marginally skilled young black males. There is some
evidence that the poorest and least skilled blacks
have lost jobs to illegal immigrants.
But that job loss is not unique to blacks. Unskilled
workers of all ethnic groups, including white unskilled
workers, lose jobs as the number of unskilled laborers
increases -- regardless of whether those in the
expanding pool of unskilled workers are illegal
immigrants or native-born.
Even if illegal immigration has little or no adverse
economic impact on the urban poor, many fervently
believe that it does. When an issue stirs intense
passions and fears, belief can trump reality. That's
plainly evident in the blistering comments that
many blacks have made on black talk radio shows
in recent weeks slamming illegal immigrants. Some
even implore blacks not to join immigrant rights
protests. Many of them cite the remark that Mexican
President Vicente Fox made last May in a speech
in the seacoast town of Puerto Vallarta. Fox praised
Mexicans for their dignity and work ethic, and their
willingness to work the hardest, and dirtiest jobs
in the United States. But he then added that they
worked jobs "that not even blacks want to do."
This impolitic gaffe at best was insensitive, at
worst racially demeaning. Many blacks were furious
at Fox and took the remark as evidence that Mexicans
While civil rights leaders and black Democrats now
firmly support illegal immigrants' rights, for a
long time they were mute on the issue. The Congressional
Black Caucus opposed the Sensenbrenner bill in the
House last December. But it made little effort to
expose the punitive and draconian provisions of
the bill, let alone inform and engage blacks on
how illegal immigration impacts their interests.
This sowed more doubt and confusion about illegal
immigration among blacks.
Still, the Field Poll and the demonstration at Congresswoman
Waters' office had one thing in common. It put black
leaders squarely on the same spot as the rest of
the nation on illegal immigration: Deal with it!