Lobbyists and House members who support immigration have been jarred by a newspaper advertisement that uses the moral clout of a veteran black civil-rights leader to highlight anger among working-class African-Americans about current immigration levels.
Some African-Americans say that illegal immigration hurts the black community.
In response to the anger highlighted in the ad, the advocates have proposed a package of laws to counter perceptions that immigration, both illegal and legal, is harming the black community. The proposals include new anti-racism laws, additional job-training programs, more business regulations, and a public education campaign that would "counter stereotypes about immigrants and African-Americans," says a statement by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which helped draft the package.
"We're not going to get anywhere without educating people [that] the immigrants will not undermine our quality of life," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, told National Journal. She is a leader on immigration issues for the Congressional Black Caucus and sits on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law. The subcommittee is drafting an immigration bill that may offer some form of amnesty to illegal immigrants in the United States -- whose numbers could be as high as 12 million -- and create a new inflow of "guest workers."
The ad has been running in such inside-the-Beltway publications as Roll Call and The Washington Post as part of a $50,000 media campaign by the Coalition for the Future American Worker, which calls itself an umbrella organization of professional trade associations, population and environment organizations, and immigration reform groups.
The ad is dominated by a photo of T. Willard Fair, head of the Miami Urban League, and a declaration that "amnesty for illegal workers is not just a slap in the face to black Americans. It's an economic disaster." Fair has been fighting racial discrimination for 44 years, and he sits on the board of the D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, which wants to curb immigration.
The coalition has formed a "527" group called Independent Voices for Change and is trying to raise money "from folks in America, black and white, who share our particular position on this issue," Fair said.
The coalition hopes that the ad will help win over a decisive number of swing-voting whites in both parties by shielding them from charges of xenophobia and racism. "We [also] want to help the representatives understand that the majority restrictionist position is a good moral one and on high ground," said Roy Beck, executive director for NumbersUSA, which supports the coalition.
The small-dollar ad campaign has already prompted House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., to urge a broader consideration of immigration's economic impact. The displacement of U.S. workers, especially black workers, by waves of immigrants is "a serious problem," he said. "A full-employment economy has been my life's goal," said Conyers, who was first elected to Congress in 1964. He would not speculate on how an immigration bill would affect that goal.
At a May 3 hearing of the House immigration subcommittee, the witness selected by the panel's Republicans was Vernon Briggs, a Democrat and a labor-relations professor at Cornell University, who argued that immigration "hurts the poor" and will eventually produce a "nightmare" society where a few rich dominate the many poor. Such an outcome, he said, would result because unskilled American workers can't compete against low-wage unskilled migrants.
Polls show that African-Americans and low-income people mostly oppose greater immigration. A survey of 6,000 people released in March 2006 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that 58 percent of "financially struggling" Democratic respondents, and 56 percent of black Democratic respondents, believed that legal and illegal immigrants were "a burden."
Informal polls show even greater opposition to immigration. Up to 80 percent of blacks in Houston oppose further Hispanic immigration, said Michael Harris, a leading talk-show host on KCOH radio in that city. "Most of my audience opposes it. They see Hispanics as competition for jobs... [and] rental property," said Harris, who is African-American. Crowding in schools and hospitals, as well as Hispanics' use of affirmative-action benefits, also angers blacks, who feel excluded from jobs when they can't speak Spanish, Harris said.
Some academic studies support such fears. Between 1995 and 2000, legal and illegal immigration reduced wages for U.S. high school dropouts by 9.5 percent, according to a study by economist George Borjas of Harvard University. Immigration since 2000 has likely pushed wages down further, he said. In March, the unemployment rate was 4.5 percent, but the rate for high school dropouts was 7.0 -- and was even higher for blacks (8.3 percent) and for black dropouts (18.7 percent), according to the Labor Department.
Many black legislators are reluctant to discuss the immigration controversy. "For many members, it is a very tricky issue," said an aide to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.
Lobbyists for greater immigration downplay these concerns. "There's quite strong support among minority communities for legalization [of illegal immigrants]," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigration-advocacy group that is backed by Hispanic groups; immigration lawyers; the restaurant industry; and UNITE HERE, a union whose 450,000 members work in hotels, restaurants, and casinos and in the textile sector.
Sharry, however, conceded that the prospect of continued immigration is contentious among blacks. "That's where the concerns about competition and job displacement become more intense," he said.
Immigration has helped the national economy, even as it has had "very detrimental impacts" on unskilled workers in some industries, such as meatpacking, where wages and the number of unionized workers have fallen dramatically since the early 1980s, said immigration supporter Gerald Jaynes, a professor of economics and African-American studies at Yale University. Jaynes says that relocation and training programs should aid those workers who lose out.
For decades, said Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, black unemployment has exceeded the rate for whites because of racial discrimination, and is now exacerbated by free trade in a global economy. He said the impact of immigration is overstated. "As a lifelong civil-rights advocate, I do not see this as an issue of economics," Henderson said. "I see it as a moral one."
The legislative proposals offered by Henderson and his allies call for, among other things, tighter enforcement of fair-wage and overtime requirements, new rules on hiring and advancement, job training, and expansion of naturalization rules for workers recruited in any guest-worker program.
Arguments that immigration leaves blacks at an economic disadvantage are intended to split the political alliance between blacks and Latinos, said Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala. In the 1890s, an emerging alliance of blacks and poor whites was broken up by wealthier interests, and "I see echoes of it in our politics today," he said. Henderson concurred, saying at the May 3 hearing that opponents of additional immigration "are not now, nor have they ever been, friends of African-Americans."
"This is a thinly veiled charge of racism," retorted Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, the panel's ranking member, who says that his constituents have lost income because local meatpacking plants prefer to hire low-wage illegal immigrants. Asked in an interview about King's comments, Henderson said that King's "reaction suggests to me he does protest too much."
A potential white-black economic alliance against immigration would pose a political problem for diversity advocates. "We need to respond to these [Fair] ads," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., told the hearing, because "history shows [that blacks and Hispanics] have so much in common."
Although there is a tight alliance among African-American and Hispanic legislators and liberal advocacy groups, the immigration issue can mean headaches for representatives. For example, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has repeatedly decried the proposed guest-worker program and the use of illegal immigrants as "slavery," yet he told National Journal, "I've a lot of Dominicans [in my district].... I don't know what I'm going to do." In 2000, Hispanics composed 48 percent of his district.
Top Democratic leaders and activists see Hispanic migration as a long-term opportunity for the party. The arrival of additional immigrant workers is "bad for blue-collars," Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told National Journal late last year. But immigrants can help elect Democratic majorities, and "if [a Democratic Congress] were to significantly strengthen unions, then you would offset the negative effect on the income of workers," he said.
Such calculations don't allay opponents of increased migration. "The [Democratic] Party is certainly no longer the party of the old Left -- unions, working people, minimum wages, health and safety in the workplace -- and [it] now has gotten into diversity, client politics, and all the rest of it," said Briggs, who favors the ideal of economic equality.
Harris, the Houston radio host, says: "The black caucus is more Democratic than black, they're more tied to the party than to the people, and our representation ain't [worth] jack."