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Immigrant rights and Black politics

May 19, 2006 | Page 5

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR looks at why Black Democrats have been slow at best to embrace the rising movement for immigrant rights.

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"We have a huge problem. This immigration problem is a crisis, and we can't get around it anymore. It has got to be dealt with...We have not done what we should have done to secure the borders."

"Let me say at the outset that...a strong border security policy is an absolute necessity for this nation."

"They [immigrants] have to acknowledge that breaking our immigration laws was wrong. They must pay a penalty and abide by all of our laws going forward."

WHO MADE these comments? Was it a right-wing Republican congressman? A hate-monger from the racist Minuteman Project?

No, these statements came from liberal darlings of the Democratic Party--Reps. Maxine Waters and John Conyers, and Sen. Barack Obama, respectively--during various interviews about how to deal with the so-called immigration "problem."

In fact, these comments reflect what has been a generally cool reception to this new civil rights movement for immigrant rights from the old guard of the last civil rights movement. From the NAACP to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)--the self-annointed "conscience of the Congress"--a number of Black political leaders have been notably lukewarm to the new movement.

In fact, Black Democrat and CBC member Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee actually voted for the racist HR 4437 bill--legislation sponsored by Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner that would brand undocumented immigrants as felons.

When the NAACP finally came out with a statement in support of immigrant rights at the end of March, the organization firmly planted itself on the right wing of the movement by supporting an earned "path to legal permanent residency and citizenship for college-age students."

What's behind the Black Democrats' tepid response to the new movement? There are three explanations.

First, the Democratic Party as a whole has radically shifted to the right over the last 20 years. In the name of "electability," the Democrats have pandered and acquiesced to the right--all the while abandoning their base--on the key political and social issues of the day: abortion, the death penalty and the criminal justice system, gay marriage, health care, education and, now, immigrant rights.

The Black Democrats are no different. Moreover, they have an additional role to play--helping to patch up the reputation of the party in the Black community and within the broad left, when the Democrats line up with Republicans on important political issues.

Second, a number of Black elected officials feel politically threatened by the rising number of Latinos moving into their districts. As Latinos have displaced African Americans as the largest racial minority in the U.S., there is a fear among Black politicians that the rising political clout of Latinos could erode into their electoral base.

Lastly, many Black elected officials are tailing the genuine anxiety that a number of ordinary Blacks have expressed about low wages and job losses, which they attribute to the presence of undocumented workers.

The media has embellished the idea that Blacks are opposed to immigrant rights--exemplified by major newspapers in both Los Angeles and Chicago focusing on the miniscule handful of Blacks working with the racist Minutemen. In fact, in a recently published poll in California--a state at the heart of the immigration debate--82 percent of Blacks supported offering undocumented immigrants an opportunity to become citizens.

Black Americans are twice as likely as white workers and one and a half times as likely as Latino workers to be unemployed. Black unemployment has fluctuated between 9 and 10 percent since 2001.

There is a reality that all low-wage workers--Black, white and Latino--are in a competition with each other for jobs. But Black joblessness is not caused by undocumented immigrants. The main factors in Black unemployment, first and foremost, are racial discrimination in hiring, the erosion of jobs in manufacturing, and incarceration.

When the federal government cut funding for job training from $245 million to $45 million in 2002, this had a lot more to do with younger Blacks losing jobs than the presence of undocumented workers.

Granting amnesty and full legalization to those who want it would go a long way toward dismantling the two-tier wage system that drives down wages for all workers--citizens and non-citizens alike.

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