Posted April 12, 2006 – Granted, African Americans have used marches and protests, to bring attention to civil rights issues. But are the two communities on the same page when it comes to the immigration debate?
Over the past two weeks, I’ve spoken with lawmakers to find out what they think the immigration debate is really about. While reform may be a topic lawmakers agree needs tackling, I discovered that Black and Latino communities see the issue from different vantage points.
In December, by a vote of 239 to 182, the House passed the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control bill.
Only one member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), voted for the Republican-sponsored measure. Most Democrats and immigration activists considered it too harsh because it only looked at enforcement and focused more on punishing undocumented workers than finding a way to allow them to work in the United States or acquire citizenship.
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“I am a strong supporter of meaningful immigration reform,” said the five-term congressman, who is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist. “Because America is a nation of laws, we must enforce our laws and secure our borders.”
Ford says that Washington isn’t providing leadership on this issue. “Instead, Republicans and Democrats are yelling past one another while families and business are suffering,” he said.
Rep. Al Green’s (D-Texas), who has a district where a third of the constituents were born outside of the United States, said that the belief that foreigners are taking jobs is the thing that causes the most tension among Black working-class Americans and Latino immigrants.
But the real problem isn’t as much jobs as it is wages, Green said. Yes, Black folks do represent the highest unemployed population, but they would be glad to take those less desirable jobs if they paid better, Green said. Therefore, raising the minimum wage is the real issue, he said.
For Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), whose district is close to 50 percent Latino, the rallies and marches are sending a message to lawmakers. “It’s a cry directed toward this administration, that you cannot use us for political points,” she told me. Activists and Latino lawmakers want undocumented workers to gain “guest worker” status, meaning that they would be able to work and stay in the United States as long as U.S. employers need their labor.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said that while the focus is on the influx of immigrants from Mexico and Latin American nations, she and the other members of the Congressional Black Caucus will be watching closely to ensure that any proposed laws fairly impact immigrants of African descent.
“We’ve got to make sure that what is done … is fair for Africa and Haiti; we really have to put up a fight for what is fair for Haiti,” she told me. Waters wants the same immigration status offered Cubans upon entry into the United States: “Wet foot, dry foot” status, which allows Cubans to stay in the United States if they get one foot on American soil.
Many members of Congress confirmed tensions between the Black and Latino communities but reminded me that immigration was not necessarily the source of conflict. For example, Sanchez pointed to problems in her Los Angeles district resulting from the fight for political power in a community facing transition from African American to Latino. Waters pointed to gang wars in her South Central, Los Angeles district.
Most agreed that now the real challenge is whether the two communities can come together around the thing they clearly have in common: an fair shake at the rewards America has to offer for loyalty and hard work.