Monday, June 18, 2007

What the Immigration Debate Means for Black America

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.

3. Education
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.

-Wendi Muse


Objective Thinker said...

One thing Miss Muse is neglecting to address here is that the reason that Latino immigrants are being hired is their willingness to work hard. Typically, they work harder, do a better job for less money than their American Citizen (Regardless of race color or creed) counterparts. They are grateful to have an opportunity much like any other immigrant group in our history. Consequently, business owners are getting jobs done better for less money by people happy to be working. This means a higher profit margin. Miss Muse should be considering that roughly 30% of the black business owners in states with high Latino (Mexican/South American) population are choosing to hire the people who are not just willing to do the job, but, grateful to have an opportunity to provide.

Wendi Muse said...

thanks for your comment "objective thinker." just to clarify...I am not saying immigrants are not hard working nor that they are hired solely because they may work for less. however, considering the precarious state of illegal immigrants, whom i am addressing in the section you reference, many employers exploit them and pay them less b/c they know they will find it hard to survive without it (as getting a formal sector job will be impossible).

the hard work for less may be a result of a greater need to make ends meet. american citizens, at least in a perfect world, would have the cushion of their citizenship to give them a leg up and not feel the need to resort to working for illegal (below minimum wage) pay levels.

the point of the job market paragraph was to point out how the bill MAY affect poor members of the black community. if there is punishment for hiring illegal immigrants (and mind you, i am not speaking solely of Latinos, and certainly not of legal immigrants), the next people in line who would be the most likely to apply for jobs that do not require a higher education level would be the poor.

this is not a comparison between blacks and immigrants (legal or otherwise). in fact, i think more should be done to bring the communities together because they face similar issues. however, the pending bill on immigration will affect more of us than we are willing to admit, for better and for worse.

Wendi Muse said...

just one more thing...i also think the prospect of employees working for less is used as a particularly divisive strategy. it happens with more than just immigrant vs. citizen groups...

some companies try to save the most money by paying their employees as little as possible. if they can find someone who is equally qualified who will work for less, it makes more sense to hire them. however, when you combine race, economic background, and immigrant status with this act, to name a few factors, it complicates things even more and makes people scapegoat one group for selling out and working for too little (direct competition) or for saying the other group is too demanding, lazy, or money-hungry.

unbiased thinker... said...

To say that one group of individuals gets hired over another because of the formers willingness and disposition to work harder, and thus, better is to allude to one group being in ways better than another. The fact of the matter is that Latino immigrants are hired because they are far more numerous throughout the US and outnumber any other group of immigrants that they can be (and effectively are) exploited by business owners simply because they can be. Latino immigrants work hard for measly pay because they have no choice. Either they work hard to keep their job and put food on the table and send money to their families or they are easily replaced.
If there’s one thing that history has taught us and immigrants who helped build the US can testify to is that necessity and hunger are strong motivators. People who are in need and who know they are dispensable to their employers can and will work to exhaustion to prove that they are indispensable.
Ms. Muse is not saying that immigrants (Latinos included) are the culprits. The problem is in the fact that employers are greedy and they can for momentarily get away with the subhuman treatment that they inflict on illegal immigrants. Ms. Muse is not by any means stating that one group is better than the other. As so-called minorities we have to prepare ourselves better mentally and academically and force our way into the job market instead of complaining about all the factors that play against us, immigrants included. We have to unite and see each other as equals and support each other instead of playing into the further divisions that are being created for us (minorities and immigrants). We have to keep in mind that in the Native American’s eyes we are all immigrants and not only immigrants we are usurpers to a certain extent.
And one final question that I’ve been considering: Are immigrants flocking to the US looking for new opportunities and jobs on spec or are they being lured to the US by employers who need cheap labor from people they can openly exploit?

objective thinker said...

Well kudos to you both. My point however is that:
1. If I have no alternative (welfare, social security, etc.) then I will do what is necessary to provide for my family.
2. As I recall the economic structure of a democracy includes the ability to hire the willing over the unwilling for the sake of prosperity for all.
I am saying that in the same way as the Italians and Irish of the past were willing to do what ever was necessary to obtain the "fresh start in America" so are the immigrants of today! The difference is that there are more alternatives in place today that make it easier NOT to have to work.
Shame on the employer who exploits the willing illegally at substandard wages. Shame as well on any community that allows for abuse of a system designed to help those that are legitimately unable to provide for themselves.
Disregard the category of immigrant or citizen, those that are willing to work will be successful. The rest will be cared for anyways.....We absolutely need to work together at improving the situation. It starts in the homes and the communities though.
Lazy is lazy and should not be rewarded with sympathetic "theories" of presumed "higher consciousness". The poor will always exist and a portion of the poor will be or remain that away because of choices.
Now I will return to work to give my employer an honest days work

Anonymous said...

its not immigratnts wen eed to worry about, its the ILLEGAL immigrant that wed o need to worry about.
you never once differentiated the two, that is very crucial, because america is nothing without immigrant we're all immigrants, I wuld not care if 100,000,000 immigrants came over her, as long as they came lawfully, and nit try to turn the US into mexico or where ever their comming from.

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