Near the close of a recent spirited community forum in South Los Angeles on black and Latino relations, a young black man in the audience stood up and proudly, even defiantly, shouted that he was a member of the Minuteman Project.
This is the fringe group that has waged a noisy, gun toting and headline grabbing campaign to shut down the Mexican border to illegal immigrants. GOP conservatives and immigration reformers denounce their borderline, racist rants. Their rhetoric didn't faze the young black man, nor many other blacks in the audience who nodded in agreement, as he launched into a finger pointing, tirade against illegal immigrants that he claimed steal jobs from blacks. He punctuated his tirade by loudly announcing that he had taken part in a Minuteman border patrol back in April.
Illegal immigration clearly touched a raw nerve with many blacks in the audience. Nationally, many blacks are unabashed in fingering illegal immigrants, mostly Mexicans, even though many illegal immigrants are from Canada, Europe and Asia, for the poverty and job dislocation in black communities. Illegal immigration has touched a national nerve. More than half of Americans, according to a Pew Research Center survey in November 2005, said that illegal immigration should be a top national policy priority.
The first big warning sign of black frustration with illegal immigration came during the battle over Proposition 187 in California in 1994. White voters voted by big margins for the proposition that denied public services to undocumented immigrants. But nearly fifty percent of blacks also backed the measure.
Republican governor Pete Wilson shamelessly pandered to anti-immigrant hysteria and rode it to a reelection victory. Wilson also got nearly 20 percent of the black vote that election. It was double what Republicans in California typically get from blacks. Wilson almost certainly bumped up his black vote total with his freewheeling assault on illegal immigration. Blacks have also given substantial support to anti-bi-lingual ballot measures in California.
Though there is furious dispute over the economic impact that the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. have on the job market, there is no concrete evidence that the majority of employers hire Latinos at low-end jobs and exclude blacks from them solely because of their race. The sea of state and federal anti-discrimination laws, and labor code sections explicitly ban
employment discrimination. Despite a recent flurry of lawsuits and settlements by blacks against and with major employers for alleged racial favoritism toward Hispanic workers, employers vehemently deny that they shun blacks, and maintain that blacks don't apply for these jobs.
These aren't just flimsy covers for discrimination. Many blacks will no longer work the low skilled, menial factory, restaurant, and custodial jobs that in decades past they filled. The pay is too low, the work too hard, and the indignities too great. On the other hand, those blacks that seek these jobs are
often given a quick brush off by employers. The subtle message is that blacks won't be hired, even if they do apply. An entire category of jobs at the bottom rung of American industry has been clearly marked as "Latino only" jobs. That further deepens suspicion and resentment among blacks that illegal immigration is to blame for the economic misery of poor blacks.
The anti-immigrant sentiment among blacks is not new. A century ago, immigration was also a hot button issue among black leaders. Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois railed against Eastern European immigrants that crowded Northern cities. They claimed the new immigrants elbowed blacks out of the bottom rung manufacturing jobs. At times, these leaders, otherwise, progressive, and staunch fighters for civil rights and against Jim Crow laws, sounded every bit as hard line as the most rabid, nativist, America first anti-immigration foes in demanding that the federal government clamp down on legal and illegal immigration.
Illegal immigration then and now 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, savage state and federal government cuts in and the elimination of job and skills training programs, failing public schools, a soaring black prison population, and employment discrimination are still the major reasons for the grim employment prospects and poverty in inner city black neighborhoods.
Civil rights leaders, and the Congressional Black Caucus, have repeatedly condemned the thinly disguised race tinged appeals of the Minuteman Project, Save Our State, and the legions of other fringe anti-immigration groups that have cropped up in nearly every part of the country in recent months. Some of them openly pitch their anti-immigrant line to blacks. As the immigration debate heats up in Congress and in the states, and with so many young blacks unemployed and with a prison cell staring them in the face, more blacks may find it harder to resist the temptation to join in their shout to close down the border.