No sooner did President Barack Obama and a group of senators separately outline proposals to revamp the nation’s immigration system than the phone lines on several African-American-oriented talk radio shows heated up with callers blasting the plans.
“Amnesty,” complained Frankie from Maryland recently on the nationally syndicated “Keeping it Real with Al Sharpton.”
A political payback to Hispanic voters that does little or nothing for African-Americans, reasoned Sam from Milwaukee on Wisconsin’s 1290 WMCS AM’s “Earl Ingram Show.”
“Our issues are not being highlighted and pushed, and things like gay marriage and (immigration) are being pushed to the forefront,” the caller said. “Hispanics are effectively organized. For us not to be organized and for us not to hold our leadership accountable is disheartening.”
Although the civil rights establishment, from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the Urban League and Sharpton, squarely back Obama’s desire to tackle immigration, the president’s call has reignited complaints within the African-American community that he is addressing the specific needs of almost all major voting blocs—Hispanics, women, gays—except for the African-Americans who gave him 93 percent of their vote.
“There (are) clearly different views in the African-American community around immigration,” Sharpton said on his radio show last month. “Some have said they’re (illegal immigrants) taking our jobs, they dilute our strength. Others have said we’ve got to have rights for everybody or we don’t have it for anybody, and this is not just a Latino issue because immigration laws cover the Caribbean, cover Africans, cover South Americans.”
Some angst over Obama addressing immigration and other issues so soon in his second term has boiled over into public criticism of the nation’s first African-American president by many African-Americans, from the grassroots to the political levels.
“The amount of blacks who are impacted by this [immigration] legislation is so small it’s infinitesimal,” talk show host Earl Ingram said. “Minuscule.”
A 2009 report by the Migration Policy Institute found that black immigrants from all regions of the world accounted for just 9 percent of the overall immigrant population in the United States.
Still, Ingram says many of his listeners see Obama’s attempt to push forward on immigration as a reminder of what the president hasn’t done to improve economic conditions for African-Americans.
“I would say a bulk of my listenership is anti-immigration,” he said. “You have to understand that in the community in which I live the percentage of African-Americans who are unemployed. They look at what’s going on with immigration as an affront to African-Americans who can’t pay their mortgages because many of the immigrants come here, they are hired at less than minimum wage.”
A 2009 study by George Borjas of Harvard University, Jeffrey Grogger of the University of Chicago and George Hanson of the University of California, San Diego, looked at 1960-2000 Census data and found that as immigrants disproportionately increased the supply of workers in a particular area, wages of African-American workers in that area fell, the employment rate declined and the incarceration rate rose.
“Our analysis suggests that a 10 percent immigration-induced increase in the supply of a particular skill group reduced the black wage by 2.5 percent, lowered the employment rate of black men by 5.9 percentage points, and increased the incarceration rate of blacks by 1.3 percentage points,” the professors wrote in the study.
Many civil rights leaders also believe that African-American concerns about the White House and Congress pushing for new immigration laws are overhyped. NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said, “Four out of five black voters are in support of immigration reform.”
But some polls tell a different story. A Pew Research poll released in January found that 56 percent of African-Americans feel there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between immigrants and people born in the United States. But perceptions may be improving—January’s figure is a drop from 61 percent in 2009.
The sensitivity of the immigration issue within the African-American community isn’t lost on African-American and Hispanic leaders who are striving for a unified front.
Sharpton and Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, an immigration advocacy coalition, walked together to their seats at Obama’s second inauguration ceremony last month.
Murguia has made strengthening ties with the African-American community a key component of her leadership. She was the first Hispanic leader to give the keynote speech at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast in Birmingham, Ala. She marched arm in arm with Sharpton, Jealous and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at last year’s Selma-to-Montgomery march, which focused on voter rights and anti-illegal immigrant laws like those in Alabama.