Immigration Debate Rages Among Blacks

Two things happened within one day of each other this month that rammed race back into the debate over illegal immigration. First, 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 next day, a spirited group of black activists marched in front of the Los Angeles office of popular, outspoken black California House Democrat Maxine Waters. They protested Waters' 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 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 and fond memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's 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 best 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, Princeton, as well as 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 whites, lose jobs as the number of unskilled workers increases, regardless of whether those in the unskilled work pool are illegal immigrants or native-born workers.

Even if illegal immigration had no adverse economic impact on the urban poor, many would still fervently believe that it does. When an issue stirs intense passions and fears, and illegal immigration is certainly an issue that does that, 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 Puerta Vallarta. Fox praised Mexicans for their dignity and hard work ethic, and their willingness to work the toughest, dirtiest jobs in the U.S. But he then added that they worked jobs that blacks won't work. This gaffe was, at best, insensitive and, at worst, racially demeaning -- and many blacks were furious at Fox, and they took it as evidence that Mexicans disdained blacks.

While most 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, 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 in the same spot that the rest of the nation is on when it comes to illegal immigration. Deal with it!

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