Black America and Immigration

A few months before the 2004 presidential election, Project 21, a Washington, D.C.-based group of black conservative business professionals, called George Bush on his conflicted immigration reform proposals. The group railed that if Congress enacted Bush's reform proposals, it 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 more illegal immigrants would have a 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 same 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 ultraconservative GOP boosters, which have pounded on Bush to take even harsher steps to shut down the border.

But the 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 silly, impolitic and crude, but civil rights leaders were mostly mute on it and him.

That's no surprise, either. During the past two decades, the illegal immigration debate has stirred doubt, hesitation and 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 reform 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 measure immigration. But the sharp jump in the number of illegal immigrants, as well as new polls that showed that significant numbers of blacks opposed increased immigration, bilingual education and drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants, and constituents' rumbles that illegal immigrants were grabbing jobs from blacks in retail and construction industries, made some black Democrats pause.

While 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 invited 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 immigration issue. It was only one of several policy initiatives, including affirmative action, tougher hate crimes legislation, health care, elimination of racial profiling, voting rights and greater public education funding, that the two groups agreed to work on more closely together. 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 black Democrats on immigrants' rights. In 2004, the majority of Congressional Black Caucus members backed an amnesty measure that was far more generous in granting amnesty than the one offered by the Bush administration. But some civil rights leaders still warned that illegal immigration threatened black jobs in some parts of the country, and 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 not pander to the anti-immigrant hysteria that has gripped many Americans, including many black Americans. They must call for a fair immigration reform measure that safeguards the rights of undocumented workers, as well as the job security of black workers. That's a tall order, but it's one they must fill.

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