On Immigration Policy: Old civil-rights groups avoid debate on immigration

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Mar 30 14:29:30 UTC 2006

>>From SFGate, San Francisco Chronicle
On Immigration Policy
Old civil-rights groups avoid debate on immigration
- Earl Ofari Hutchinson, New America Media
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Los Angeles -- The great irony in the gargantuan march of hundreds of
thousands in Los Angeles and other cities for immigrant rights is that the
old civil-rights groups have been virtually mute on the explosively
growing movement. There are no position papers, statements or press
releases on the Web sites of the NAACP, Urban League or Southern Christian
Leadership Conference on immigration reform, and nothing on the marches.
The Congressional Black Caucus hasn't done much better. It has issued
mostly perfunctory, tepid and cautious statements opposing the draconian
provisions of the House bill that passed last December. The Sensenbrenner
bill calls for a wall on the southern border, a massive beef-up in border
security and tough sanctions on employers who hire undocumented

Only nine of 43 caucus members initially backed the liberal immigration
reform bill introduced by member Sheila Jackson Lee in 2004. The lone
exception to the old guard's mute response on immigration-related issues
was their lambasting of Mexican President Vicente Fox last May for his
quip that Mexicans will work jobs that even blacks won't. The silence from
mainstream civil-rights groups and the caucus' modest support for
immigrant rights is a radical departure from the past. During the 1980s,
when immigration was not the hot-button issue it is today, the caucus
staunchly opposed tougher immigration proposals, voted against employer
sanctions for hiring illegal immigrants and opposed an English-language
requirement to attain legalization. That was an easy call then. Those were
the Reagan years, and Reagan and conservative Republicans, then as now,
pushed the bill. Civil-rights leaders and black Democrats waged low-yield
wars against Reagan policies.

In 2002, the NAACP made a slight nod to the immigration fight when it
invited Hector Flores, president of League of United Latin American
Citizens, to address its convention. The NAACP billed the invite as a
"historic first." But it was careful to note that immigration was one of a
list of policy initiatives the two groups would work together on. That
list included support for affirmative action, expanded hate crimes
legislation, voting rights protections and increased health and education
funding. There is no indication that the two groups have done much
together since to tackle immigration reform. The caucus and civil-rights
leaders tread lightly on the immigrant rights battle for two reasons. They
are loath to equate the immigrant-rights movement with the civil-rights
battles of the 1960s. They see immigrant rights as a reactive, narrow,
single-issue movement whose leaders have not actively reached out to black
leaders and groups.

Black leaders also cast a nervous glance over their shoulder at the shrill
chorus of anger rising from many African Americans, especially the black
poor, of whom a significant number flatly oppose illegal-immigrant rights.
But illegal immigration is not the prime reason so many poor young blacks
are on the streets, and why some turn to gangs, guns and drug dealing to
get ahead. A shrinking economy, sharp state and federal government cuts in
and elimination of job and skills training programs, failing public
schools, a soaring black prison population and employment discrimination
are the prime causes of the crisis in many inner-city black neighborhoods.
Yet, many blacks soft-target illegal immigrants for the crisis and loudly
claim that they take jobs from unskilled and marginally skilled blacks.
Black fury over immigration has cemented an odd alliance between black
anti-immigrant activists and GOP conservatives, fringe anti-illegal
immigration groups and racially tinged America-first groups.

Historians, politicians and civil rights activists hail the March on
Washington in August 1963 as the watershed event in the civil-rights
movement. It defined an era of protest, sounded the death knell for the
near century of legal segregation and challenged Americans to make racial
justice a reality for blacks. But the estimated million that marched and
held rallies for immigrant rights in Los Angeles and other cities dwarfed
the numbers at the March on Washington. If the numbers and passion that
immigration reform stirs mean anything, the judgment of history will be
that it also defined an era, sounded the death knell for discrimination
against immigrants and challenged Americans to make justice and equality a
reality for immigrants, both legal and illegal.

The immigrants' rights battle will profoundly alter the way Americans look
at immigrants. The silence of civil-rights leaders won't change that. But
there is no better time than now to end that silence.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an associate editor at New America Media.

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