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Silent Civil Rights Groups

Immigrant rights activism is spreading nationwide, but why aren't old-guard civil rights groups joining the cause?
 
 
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The great irony in the gargantuan march of hundreds of thousands in Los Angeles and other cities for immigrant rights is that the old civil rights groups have been virtually mute on the explosively growing movement. There are no position papers, statements or press releases on the Web sites of the NAACP, Urban League or SCLC on immigration reform, and nothing on the marches.

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) hasn't done much better. It has issued mostly perfunctory, tepid and cautious statements opposing the draconian provisions of the House bill that passed last December. The Sensenbrenner bill calls for a wall on the Southern border, a massive beef-up in border security and tough sanctions on employers who hire undocumented immigrants. The Senate Judiciary Committee will wrestle with the bill this week.

Only nine of 43 CBC members initially backed the liberal immigration reform bill introduced by CBC member Sheila Jackson Lee in 2004. The lone exception to the old guard's mute response on immigration-related issues was their lambasting of Mexican President Vicente Fox last May for his quip that Mexicans will work jobs that even blacks won't.

The silence from mainstream civil rights groups and the CBC's modest support for immigrant rights is a radical departure from the past. During the 1980s, when immigration was not the hot-button issue it is today, the Caucus in 1985 staunchly opposed tougher immigration proposals, voted against employer sanctions for hiring illegal immigrants and opposed an English-language requirement to attain legalization. That was an easy call then. Those were the Reagan years, and Reagan and conservative Republicans, then as now, pushed the bill. Civil rights leaders and black Democrats waged low-yield wars against Reagan policies.

In 2002, the NAACP made a slight nod to the immigration fight when it invited Hector Flores, president of League of United Latin American Citizens, to address its convention. The NAACP billed the invite as a "historic first." But it was careful to note that immigration was one of a list of policy initiatives the two groups would work together on. That list included support for affirmative action, expanded hate crimes legislation, voting rights protections and increased health and education funding. There is no indication that the two groups have done much together since the convention to tackle these crisis issues, and that includes immigration reform.

The CBC and civil rights leaders tread lightly on the immigrant rights battle for two reasons. They are loath to equate the immigrant rights movement with the civil rights battles of the 1960s. They see immigrant rights as a reactive, narrow, single-issue movement whose leaders have not actively reached out to black leaders and groups. Spanish language newspapers and radio stations, for instance, drove the mammoth march and rally in Los Angeles. Their fiery appeals to take action were in Spanish, and many of the marchers waved Mexican and El Salvadorian flags.

Black leaders also cast a nervous glance over their shoulder at the shrill chorus of anger rising from many African-Americans, especially the black poor, of whom a significant number flatly oppose illegal immigrant rights. But illegal immigration is not the prime reason so many poor young blacks are on the streets, and why some turn to gangs, guns and drug dealing to get ahead. A shrinking economy, sharp state and federal government cuts in and elimination of job and skills training programs, failing public schools, a soaring black prison population and employment discrimination are the prime causes of the poverty crisis in many inner city black neighborhoods. The recent studies by Princeton, Columbia and Harvard researchers on the dreary plight of young black males reconfirmed that chronic unemployment has turned thousands of young black males into America's job untouchables.

Yet, many blacks soft-target illegal immigrants for the crisis and loudly claim that they take jobs from unskilled and marginally skilled blacks. Black fury over immigration has cemented an odd alliance between black anti-immigrant activists and GOP conservatives, fringe anti-illegal immigration groups and racially tinged America-first groups.

Historians, politicians and civil rights activists hail the March on Washington in August 1963 as the watershed event in the civil rights movement. It defined an era of protest, sounded the death knell for the near century of legal segregation and challenged Americans to make racial justice a reality for blacks. But the estimated million that marched and held rallies for immigrant rights in Los Angeles and other cities dwarfed the numbers at the March on Washington. If the numbers and passion that immigration reform stirs mean anything, the judgment of history will be that it also defined an era, sounded the death knell for discrimination against immigrants and challenged Americans to make justice and equality a reality for immigrants, both legal and illegal.

The battle over immigrant rights will be fought as fiercely and doggedly as the civil rights battle of the 1960s. That battle forever altered the way Americans look at race. The immigrants rights battle will profoundly alter the way Americans look at immigrants. The silence of civil rights leaders won't change that. But there is no better time than now to end that silence.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black , published by Middle Passage Press.