Immigration is not exactly on the list of priorities for black leaders. While there is more of a focus on day-to-day discrimination and long term work towards equality for African-Americans, discussions revolving around immigration, at least directly, appear to be few and far between. Immigration, however, is an incredibly important issue for U.S.-born blacks, whether they realize it or not. With a bill pending in Congress that is set to facilitate a grand overhauling of U.S. immigration policies, blacks need to put their ears to the wall and pay close attention to the decisions set to unfold.
The subject of immigration in the black American community is a controversial one. Sometimes seen as direct rivals for jobs and other resources, immigrants and immigrants’ rights groups have been met with some opposition from Americans of color. As many have witnessed a priority shift among U.S. government officials from civil rights and class division to immigration reform, a sense of betrayal and a suspicion of racism are inevitable sentiments. When surveying the history of black America, it’s difficult to deny that their concerns have been trumped by a need to deal with whatever contemporary “immigrant problem” surfaces. Following the abolition of slavery in the United States, many freed slaves from the South headed to Yankee territory in search of jobs in the restored Union. However, they quickly learned that the use of cheap immigrant labor (predominately Asian and Latin American on the West Coast and European on the East Coast) replaced a once-free workforce, creating tensions between the black community and the immigrant communities. This competition for jobs combined with the rapid inclusion of “white ethnics” from Western Europe (i.e. Italians and Irish) in the definition of whiteness demonstrated that blacks, despite their previous hard work, were still second-, even third- class citizens in the nation of their birth. There were, of course, instances of the parallel communities working together, but for the most part, years of competition led to frequent race riots and hate crimes that only deepened the chasm between black Americans and immigrant groups.
Leading up to Civil Rights Era, the recent descendants of former slaves understood the gravity of one of America’s most abusive systems. They had grown tired of their position, one that literally relegated them to the bottom of the social barrel. Yet the voices of immigrants and even indigenous groups were included in the struggle for equality in the face of racism. This period provided a powerful example of different communities working together for the sake of a similar goal. Yet now, in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Era, as the nation functions with an economy that could be described brittle at best, the division between immigrant groups and native-born blacks is growing, and for similar reasons of the past. It is incredibly important that black Americans look deeper into this issue for several reasons:
1. The Job Market
The pending bill includes a method for limiting the practice of hiring illegal immigrants for jobs. This aspect of the bill is crucial for the African-American community, particularly because one of the biggest complaints held by the community regarding jobs is strikingly similar to that of whites: that illegal immigrants are taking them all. As native-born blacks make up a considerable percentage of Americans living below the poverty line and who have not completed enough education in order to receive high-paying jobs, jobs that provide on-site training (i.e. construction jobs, factory work) and that do not require a high skill competency function as main sources of income. If employers are discouraged from hiring (and subsequently exploiting) illegal immigrants for such jobs by way of government-based deterrents, there may be more of an opportunity for lower income blacks to have access to jobs from which they presently may feel excluded. If the bill accomplishes this goal, it may provide more opportunities for the working poor to advance by way of longevity on the job and experience because they won’t feel as if their job security is threatened by the possibility of being replaced by those willing to work for less.
2. Equal Rights
Many immigrants rights activists utilize similar methods and even certain language verbatim from the Civil Rights Era. This co-opting of C.R.E. ideas means that the aforementioned groups and their leaders are looking toward black Americans of past movements as activism role models and may be able to rejuvenate a struggle for equality that has, in my opinion, been gradually silenced since Jim Crow Laws were overturned. The immediacy of the immigrants rights movement should be considered a catalyst for black Americans to return to a similar fight and to “wake up” from what could be considered community complacency following the granting of rights on paper. Despite what has been achieved, there is still a long way to go.
Another aspect of the bill includes a shift from emphasizing familial connections to ensure an easier immigration process to focusing on job skills and education as keys to entry into the United States. This change in immigration policy may yield results more like the second wave of Asian immigration, in other words, educated, middle to upper class immigrants who would be more eligible for higher level jobs. Considering that this shift could potentially provide competition in a different sector than the one described above, it is important that blacks strive to be on equal footing with future immigrants. This is not to suggest that black Americans are not already working toward such a goal, but the change in the “type” of immigrants that will be more likely to come to the United States may be a positive way to provide additional motivation toward change.
4. Race Relations
Considering the varied perceptions of race in other countries in addition to how those perceptions may change upon exposure to the concept of race in the United States, these differences between ideas on race will be important to pay attention to. There is a possibility that the new wave of immigration will lend itself to an expansion of whiteness, as America witnessed at the turn of the 20th century, however, that trend could also be reversed, especially considering the push towards a preservation of one’s cultural heritage as opposed to assimilation. The racial make-up of the immigrant population also cannot be ignored. Due to legislative limits on immigrants from certain countries (i.e. the Chinese Exclusion Act) during previous periods of American history, the racial demographics of immigrant populations were highly regulated. While similar restrictions remain, though in more subtle ways (i.e. citizens for certain countries are required to pay more for visas to visit the United States than others), the immigrant population seems to be significantly more racially and ethnically diverse than in previous centuries. This could mean that the demands for equality may rely on a different set of issues that may not have been considered by populations of the past.
In short, the issue of immigration affects us all in various ways that may unfortunately be overshadowed by tensions between the black American community and the immigrant community. Despite what the government and the mainstream media at times may like for us to believe, the problems that we face, particularly discrimination based on race and class, are not mutually exclusive. The government has focused most of their immigration-related efforts as of late on the Mexican community, but clearly immigrants come in many colors, including black, and we cannot continue to ignore the more nuanced facets of the immigration debate. The message we should take away is one of coalition-building as opposed to division.
For more information on immigration legislation in the United States, please check out the United States Citizenship and Immigrations Services site.