Bridging The Black-Immigrant Divide


When immigrants took to the streets last year to protest a punitive anti-immigrant bill in the House of Representatives and to seek a pathway to citizenship, the public conversation focused in part on the relationship between African Americans and immigrants. And much of that conversation was framed in terms of competition and conflict.

That framing was no accident. The mainstream media have fixated on potential points of black/immigrant tension, looking for a conflict storyline. And that storyline has been amply fed by conservative anti-immigrant groups intent on driving a wedge between the two communities. The website for Team America, founded by Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., and chaired by Bay Buchanan declares:

While Jesse Jackson and other self proclaimed black leaders align themselves with radical Hispanic Activists to booster their own political power, African Americans are among the greatest victims of illegal immigration.

The anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform has been pushing similar arguments for years. Their call is disingenuous, of course, since these organizations have never been concerned about the well-being of black folks, nor supported social policies designed to aid African-American communities.

But it’s also true that proponents of progressive immigration reform and equal opportunity for African Americans have frequently talked past each other. Too often, the parallel dialogue has either been about whether immigration hurts African Americans, or whether African Americans should speak out for the rights of immigrants.

As Congress and the country return their attention to immigration reform later this year, we need a new, inclusive conversation, one that asks how both communities can rise together and move the country to a better and more productive place.

The new conversation must reject the forced rivalry scenario. It must start with our common values of respect for human rights, equal treatment and a shared sense of responsibility for each other. It must embrace our linked fate and interests while working through our differences. And it must focus on constructing shared solutions that benefit everyone in our country. 

Immigrant rights and the struggle for African-American equality each present moral questions about the kind of nation we aspire to be. And we can’t answer those questions in isolation; if we’re to achieve the promise of a true land of opportunity, the same values must infuse all of our policies and reach all of our people.

A conversation rooted in shared values and interests is not only a more productive one, but an easier one, given the deep well of common concerns and linked fate that immigrants and African Americans share. Both groups care deeply about the fundamentals of opportunity in our country: education for our children, health care for our families, decent jobs and safe and affordable housing. In opinion polls both groups prioritize education and health care, in particular, at rates far higher than Americans as a whole.

The same research shows that, despite real concerns about economic competition, African Americans are more supportive of immigrant rights than are whites, and immigrants (particularly Latino immigrants) are more likely to see their fates as linked with those of African Americans. That linked fate is especially evident in urban public schools, like the one my kids attend, where immigrants and African Americans are the student body. The same is true in many hospitals and community clinics around the country. Improving those institutions goes straight to the communities’ common concerns.

Our new conversation needs a new vocabulary. That vocabulary does not include phrases often used by well-intentioned immigrant rights advocates like “we’re a nation of immigrants” or “immigrants work hard and take jobs that native born workers won’t do.” The former phrase negates the sacrifice and contribution that African Americans (as well as Native Americans) made in building our country. The latter plays into pernicious stereotypes about African Americans (as well as other low-income laborers) as loafers who’d rather get a welfare check than do an honest day’s work.

In addition to tapping false and insulting stereotypes, that narrative just doesn’t ring true for black folks, who’ve historically worked assembly lines, picked vegetables, washed dishes, cleaned homes and cared for other people’s children.

The old conversation also ignores the often invisible but still important role of modern racial bias and ethnic hierarchy in our economy. According to the unspoken rules at many establishments across the country, immigrants can work as busboys but not as waiters, and blacks can work as porters, but not as doormen. And even among immigrants, people of color and whites often enjoy different economic opportunities. 

More fundamentally, the old conversation obscures the question of what our workforce would look like if all of these jobs offered living wages and decent benefits, or how our economy would look if not only jobs, but opportunities for job training, apprenticeships, childcare and education for the new economy were equally available to all communities.

At the same time, our new conversation must move away from the idea that the rules and hierarchy of our economy and social systems are fixed, with immigrants and black folks destined to scramble for scraps at the bottom of the heap. In asking whether immigrants are good for blacks, we’ve been saying, implicitly, that immigration policy can change, but labor policy, education policy, health care policy, civil rights policy and economic policy cannot. That’s been a mistake.

So what does it mean to turn the conversation toward positive solutions that reflect our shared values and interests? It means, for example, replacing the “nation of immigrants” slogan with the more nuanced language of community—that we are all in it together, interconnected in our hopes and dreams, as well as in our successes and setbacks. As part of this narrative, we can invoke the history of our country as a place where people of different races, religions and nationalities have always come together to pursue the common goal of opportunity. And we can emphasize that keeping opportunity alive takes work and investment in effective public structures, systems and programs.

It means advocating a pathway to citizenship for immigrants hand-in-hand with job training, childcare and other opportunity-expanded programs targeted towards African-American and other communities with the highest unemployment and poverty rates.

It means a shared call for investment in the public systems that are crucial to the mobility of African Americans and immigrants: well-financed public schools, college aid and access, guaranteed quality health care and economic incentives for the creation of affordable housing. And it means insisting on anti-discrimination and fair labor enforcement, as well as living wages for all workers.

Finally, this conversation is not only about African Americans and immigrants but, ultimately, about everyone in our country. Embracing our shared values and linked fate, promoting common solutions and investing in the stepping stones of opportunity are essential to our nation’s progress in a new century and a changing world.

 Alan Jenkins is Executive Director of The Opportunity Agenda, a communications, research and advocacy organization with the mission of building the national will to expand opportunity in America.

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