February 10, 2006


Immigration Matters — Why So Many Blacks Fear Illegal Immigrants

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

A few months before the 2004 presidential election, Project 21, a Washington, D.C.—based group of black conservative businesspeople and professionals called George Bush on the carpet for his conflicted immigration reform proposals. The group railed that Bush’s proposals would flood the country with hordes of illegal immigrants, speed the deterioration in public education, further bulge the prisons and undercut American workers’ wages.

But Project 21’s biggest fear was that illegal immigration would have dire impact on black workers. It claimed that illegal immigrants depress wages, elbow blacks out of low and unskilled farm and manufacturing jobs, and snatch vital services from the black poor.

This is the well-worn argument of conservatives and fringe anti-immigrant groups such as the Minuteman Project. Other studies show that illegal immigrants pay more taxes, spend more consumer dollars on goods and services and receive less in benefits from government agencies than any other group. Project 21’s leap on the anti-illegal immigration bandwagon was predictable. They are following the lead of their ultra-conservative GOP boosters, who have pounded on Bush to take even harsher steps to shut down the border.

But the illegal immigration debate is not a manufactured ploy by conservatives to exploit black fears over illegal immigrants. In the days immediately following the Katrina debacle, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a centrist Democrat, touched off a mild flap with his shoot-from-the-lip quip to local business leaders that he was appalled at the thought that Mexican workers seeking to fill reconstruction jobs would overrun New Orleans. The crack was impolitic and crude, but civil rights leaders were mostly mute on it and him.

That’s no surprise. During the past two decades, the illegal immigration debate has stirred doubt, hesitation and even conflicting positions by black liberals and Democrats. In the 1980s, the Congressional Black Caucus staunchly opposed the 1984 immigration reform bill. The bill called for tougher sanctions against employers that hired illegal immigrants, tighter enforcement controls at the border and an English language requirement to attain legalization. But that was an easy call then for the caucus. Those were the Reagan years, and black Democrats and civil rights leaders waged relentless war against Reagan’s domestic policies. In 1985 and 1990 the caucus opposed other measures that were pretty much a carbon copy of the earlier proposal.

The CBC took its cue from the Hispanic Caucus and continued to oppose tougher punitive immigration measures. But the sharp jump in the number of illegal immigrants, new polls that showed that a significant numbers of blacks opposed increased immigration, bilingual education and drivers licenses for illegal immigrants and the rumbles from their constituents that illegal immigrants were grabbing jobs from blacks (especially in retail and construction industries) made some black Democrats pause. While they and the NAACP and the Urban League still strongly oppose the shrill, nativist, borderline-racist calls by fringe immigration groups to deport all illegal immigrants, they cautiously demand measures to better control immigration.

In 2003, the SCLC, Rainbow Push and other civil rights groups backed the Freedom Ride bus campaign to lobby Congress for amnesty for illegal immigrants and stronger labor protections. The NAACP and Urban League, though, took no official position on the Freedom Ride.

A year before the freedom ride, the NAACP brought Hector Flores, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, to be a featured speaker at its convention. Flores and the NAACP mostly skirted the issue of immigration. The NAACP did not say what or how it would work with LULAC on immigration reform, nor did it spell out its own position on the issue.

This is not a total retreat by some civil rights leaders and black Democrats on immigrant rights. In 2004, the majority of Congressional Black Caucus members backed an amnesty measure that was far more liberal and generous in granting amnesty than the one offered by the Bush administration. But some civil rights leaders still warned that illegal immigration threatened black job gains in some parts of the country, and that some blacks had begun to parrot the same racially charged arguments of groups such as the Minuteman Project.

The illegal immigration controversy is not going away. Civil rights leaders and black Democrats must and should not pander to the anti-immigrant hysteria that has gripped many Americans, including many blacks. They must continue to call for a fair, equitable immigration reform measure that safeguards both the rights and labor protections of undocumented workers and the job security of black workers. That’s a tall order, but it’s one they must fill.

Next week Part II.

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