Immigration Makes Strange Bedfellows

At first glance, it seemed absolutely ridiculous that Minuteman Project leaders would pick a park in a predominantly black neighborhood in Los Angeles as the May 3 jump-off point for their national caravan to Washington D.C. The caravan will stop in 13 cities, including President Bush's hideout in Crawford, Texas.

Since the Minutemen first toted their cameras, beach chairs, and binoculars to the Arizona-Mexico border last year to shame politicians into taking action to stop illegal immigration, they have been roundly lambasted as a racist organization. But Minuteman Project leaders bristle at the charge. They claim they do everything to shoo racists away from their organization, and that the FBI does background checks on potential members (the FBI denied the claim). They also claim to have a multi-ethnic, diverse membership.

Yet the avowed white supremacist National Alliance group, neo-Nazis, and an assortment of kooks, cranks and crazies flocked to the border last year to join Minuteman protests. On the white power website Stormfront, a National Alliance activist implored the "white nationalist community" to back the Minuteman project.

The Minutemen have few visible black supporters, and up to a week ago, their presence has been nil in black communities. They have been denounced by mainstream civil rights organizations, black elected officials, and have taken no public stand on issues such as affordable health care, failing public schools, police misconduct, the extension of the Voting Rights Act, and unemployment.

These are issues that most concern blacks. Their website is filled with xenophobic, nativist, borderline, race tinged code word taunts at the "invasion" of "hordes" of "illegal aliens."

The Minutemen's pitch to blacks is a shrewd, cynical ploy to capitalize on the split among blacks over illegal immigration. And that split is wide and deep. The NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the Congressional Black Caucus vigorously oppose the punitive Sensenbrenner House bill and have generally supported the massive immigrants' rights marches. An April Field Poll in California found that blacks, by a bigger percent than whites and even American-born Latinos, back liberal immigration reform.

But many blacks express views that are wildly at odds with the black leaders and the polls. Black callers have singed the phone lines at black radio talk shows with anti-immigrant tirades. They bombard black newspapers with letters blasting illegal immigrants. They complain that Latinos are hostile, even racist, toward blacks.

The quip by Mexican President Vicente Fox last May -- in which he praised the work ethic of illegal Mexican immigrants and disparaged that of blacks -- caused deep resentment. But the issue that pricks a raw nerve is the issue of jobs. Economists are deeply divided over the extent that illegal immigration depresses wages and helps fuel joblessness among blacks.

Even if there was not a single illegal immigrant in the country, employer discrimination, poor skills and education, and the high percent of young black males with criminal records would still insure that the unemployment figure among marginally skilled, poor black males would be double and triple that of white males.

Yet the increased visibility of undocumented workers in low-wage service, retail, construction and light manufacturing jobs -- which blacks once were employed in -- has stoked resentment and reinforced the perception among some blacks that illegal immigrants take jobs from them.

Then there is the issue of law enforcement. Polls show that, increasingly, blacks are more supportive of the police, and back tough crackdowns on gang and drug violence. They also rankle at what they perceive as the kid glove treatment by authorities of illegal immigrants. While there is no evidence that that is the case, that's the perception.

Minutemen leaders have tapped into the anger and anxiety of some blacks over the economic free fall of poor blacks, and their tough-on-crime sentiment has managed to corral a handful of black supporters. The week before the start of their caravan, they held a noisy flag-waving rally at a park in South Los Angeles. A few days later they joined a small group of anti-illegal immigrant black activists in a march for jobs, to an employment office in South L.A.

The Minutemen have set an ambitious goal, of 500 new national chapters by the end of the year and more than one million new members. They're passionately convinced that the majority of Americans agree that illegal immigration is a plague on American society, and that only harsh employer sanctions, tough criminal penalties, and the militarizing of the border can eliminate it.

They bank that thousands of blacks will agree with them, and join chapters, and jump in their flag-festooned autos and tool to Washington in protest. That's not likely to happen. But the few blacks that will jump in cars with a group that has said and done nothing to promote civil rights and fight poverty, and that has checkered ties with racist groups proves that immigration like politics can make strange bedfellows.

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