The anti-immigration law passed by the Arizona legislature, which essentially legalizes racial profiling of Latinos, has reignited the national debate over what to do about millions of undocumented people, the vast majority of whom entered through America’s porous southwestern borders. Despite the progressive stance of African American civil rights/human rights and political leaders on this issue, if you tune in to Black talk radio, one gets a sense that large numbers of Blacks are intensely opposed to granting legal status to the undocumented. This is an interesting phenomenon because in general Black people tend to advocate for the oppressed, particularly people of color. In this instance there appears to be a disconnect between Black leaders and a substantial segment of their constituency. I suspect this is because, in the legitimate quest to remain the “conscience of the nation” on matters of injustice to human beings, Black leaders reflexively and to a degree uncritically embrace a pro-legalization stance for the undocumented. The problem with this posture is that it does not take into account the serious concerns expressed by many Blacks on this complex issue.
For the record, I am absolutely in favor of fair, equitable and just immigration reform. In addition, as Africans in America, we certainly cannot accept the racial, ethnic or religious profiling of any group under any circumstances. Therefore, I am totally opposed to the Arizona law – which should be rescinded or repealed immediately. Moreover, as people of African descent, we should not ignore the history of a Republic that was born out of the dispossession of Native Americans and subsequent policies designed to preserve America as a “white nation.” The European immigrants who conquered this land also seized territory from Mexico in 1848, expanding the U.S., and creating the “borders” that millions of Mexicans have crossed in recent decades, seeking a better life for their families. Europeans also imported and exploited Chinese and Japanese labor, only to pass laws to deny them citizenship or to deport them once their presence was perceived as antagonistic to Whites. Moreover, in no small measure, some of the anti-immigrant hysteria is rooted in the fear by some Whites that their “cherished” way of life is slipping away in the face of the “browning of America.” These historical and contemporary factors must be part of the consciousness of people of African descent as we formulate a position on immigration policy reform in the 21st century.
However, these factors must be considered within the context of the Black experience on these hostile shores, and the interests/aspirations of people of African descent. Despite the successes of the Black freedom struggle, large numbers of Black people are still confined to the bottom rungs of the social-economic ladder. In large measure, this is because racism is alive and well -- and Blacks are the least preferred people of color minority in this country. “If you’re White, you’re alright, Yellow mellow, Brown stick around but Black get back” is still a reality when it comes to the struggle for opportunity in this country. Therefore, Blacks are understandably nervous about anything that threatens to undermine our fragile social-economic and political gains, particularly when vast numbers of our people are still locked out and left out. To suggest that somehow millions of undocumented people have no impact on the social-economic and political standing of African Americans runs counter to what millions of our people see and experience in their daily lives.
While Caribbean, African and Europeans will be affected by immigration reform, Latinos are by far the largest group of the undocumented, comprising more than 80% of the total. Mexicans are the largest block of undocumented among Latinos. This is the result of the long stretch of border the U.S. shares with Mexico. In city after city and in rural communities across the nation, the interests of Blacks are clashing with undocumented Latinos and legal immigrants who were granted amnesty during the last immigration reform effort. It is hard to tell Black people in rural southern communities, where Latino immigrants have penetrated to have a presence and place in the job market, that it has no impact on their lives. After generations of struggle to achieve equality in the job market/economy and influence/power in the political arena, Blacks now experience the sons and daughters of former slave masters pitting them against these new arrivals, often giving preference to the undocumented to exploit cheaper labor. At a theoretical/intellectual level, our leaders are correct to assert that Blacks and Latinos are both being exploited by White bosses. The problem is that Blacks are bearing the brunt of the exploitation as our longstanding dream of equality is deferred…again.
hThis is not just an issue of Blacks being unwilling to pick cucumbers or tomatoes as migrant workers. In urban areas where Blacks have fought forever to gain an equitable place in the construction industry, it is more than disconcerting for Black construction workers to see White bosses undermine their aspirations by hiring/exploiting Latino labor. It is not unusual to see work sites in Black communities with work crews dominated by Latinos. Independent contractors and business owners are guilty of the same practices in a range of occupations, e.g., landscaping, home improvement, car washes, fast foods establishments, restaurants. Once again, the real villain is the White boss, but the brunt of the victimization is being borne by the sons and daughters of long-suffering, formerly enslaved Africans. Finally, it does not take a genius to understand that the granting of amnesty to millions of Latinos has changed the political landscape in communities across the country as Brown Power has become a fact of life – and that power will inevitably increase if another 12 million undocumented are granted amnesty. Hence, Black Power will necessarily be affected by Brown Power.
With these concerns in mind, however, it is imperative that people of African descent and Latinos, Blacks and Browns, forge an accommodation to advance sensible immigration reform that is respectful of our mutual interests. This formula must include some reciprocity from Latino leaders and organizers. In the massive, predominantly Latino protest demonstrations seldom if ever do you hear leaders calling for Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for Haitians, reversal of the “wet foot, dry foot policy” or referencing the need for amnesty and expanded immigration quotas for African and Caribbean people. African American leaders are fervently supporting just immigration reform that will primarily positively affect Latinos without requesting that Latinos include African and Caribbean people in the demand for immigration reform. If Latino leaders were to do so, African Americans might have a more positive attitude toward immigration reform.
It is also a fact of life that African and Caribbean people cannot stream across a porous border to test their fate in the “promised land” like our Mexican neighbors and other Latinos. Indeed, it is counter-intuitive for African Americans or Americans in general to acquiesce to the idea that millions of people can enter the country without proper documents with impunity. Not only is it counter-intuitive, it is ultimately counter-productive in terms of its impact on the social-economic and political aspirations of people of African descent. Therefore, strong border enforcement must be a central feature of immigration reform to win the support of Black people, and according to most polls, the majority of the American people. Our Latino friends/allies must understand and accept that fact. Democrats have finally come to this realization as reflected in their most recent proposals for reform.
Last but not least, African American and Latino leaders need to engage in a dialogue about our mutual interests in immigration reform and its impact on our respective communities. High on the Black list should be a discussion about joint efforts to end discrimination against people of African descent in the construction industry and other occupations where our people aspire to work, and agreement that Latinos will not discriminate against Blacks in existing or future medium and large scale enterprises they own (it is understandable that Latinos or Blacks would employ their own people almost exclusively in small scale enterprises). In addition, there should be dialogue about common approaches to social-economic matters that affect the majority of Blacks and Latinos, other people of color, workers and the poor such as health care, housing, education and employment.
With these provisos, African Americans should fully support a path to legalization for the millions of undocumented currently in the country. At the end of the day, those who have been exploited by a racist/capitalist system must stand shoulder to shoulder in the struggle to create a more inclusive, democratic and just nation, a “more perfect union,” for all people in these United States. However, we must engage this vital endeavor grounded in an understanding and respect for our mutual interests.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at email@example.com.