The forum seemed tailor-made for Ted Hayes, the Los Angeles activist for the homeless who has become one of the nation’s most visible African Americans raising a ruckus about illegal immigration.
A mostly black crowd had gathered at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Los Angeles for a feisty debate about illegal immigration’s effects on the African American community. When Minister Tony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam and others called for black-brown unity, they drew boos and yells of dissent.
“Illegal immigration is wrong! They have no business being in this country!” shouted one audience member, drawing thunderous applause.
But Hayes was nowhere near the podium. He sat in the church’s back pew, silent. He had not been invited to speak. In fact, he had been explicitly rejected because panel organizers felt he lacked legitimacy, according to one of them.
And therein lies a conundrum. As immigration becomes a red-hot issue in the presidential campaign, it is stirring volatile sentiments among a sizable number of blacks who believe illegal immigrants are threatening their jobs, housing, healthcare and educational benefits. But no one has been able to unite them and effectively push for their interests.
Certainly not Hayes. Since last year, the 56-year-old lean and lanky activist has tried to rouse blacks against illegal immigration with fiery appearances on national TV, protest marches, civil disobedience and leadership of Choose Black America, an anti-illegal immigration organization launched and financially supported by the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“Illegal immigration is the greatest threat to blacks since slavery,” Hayes declared at a recent Choose Black America meeting in Inglewood. “Immigrants got our jobs, the hospitals, the schools. Black folks can’t compete.”
So far, Hayes has failed to gain traction. His events go mostly unattended. His organization has managed to recruit only about 50 members nationwide. An Internet appeal to support his crusade netted only about $500, at last count.
A huge misstep, said commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, was Hayes’ decision to align himself with the Minuteman Project, an anti-illegal immigration group viewed as extremist by many people, including blacks. Founder Jim Gilchrist, who calls Hayes “spectacular,” sharply disputes the charge and said Minutemen are patriots of all races who do not engage in violence.
Hayes, whose father was an Army sergeant and a World War II veteran, said he liked President Bush’s muscular Mideast foreign policy and supports the Iraq War. Those positions have not endeared him in the largely Democratic black community.
Then Hayes took up immigration, embraced the Minutemen and got slammed even harder.
Hayes makes no apologies for his positions. He does, however, voice regrets about his confrontational style, which has alienated him from such powerful black leaders as U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and City Councilwoman Jan Perry—neither of whom chose to publicly comment on him.
Asked to evaluate his effectiveness, Hayes is unflinchingly blunt. “Horrible. A failure,” he said. “I’m a liability to the cause, because I seem to anger more people in power than make them allies.” Organizations he began with a flourish, including the Black Elephants Republican group and the anti-illegal immigration Crispus Attucks Brigade, never grew beyond a handful of members.
Choose Black America also has failed to take off—one reason the Federation for American Immigration Reform has not been entirely thrilled with Hayes’ leadership.
Hayes’ penchant for confrontation and civil disobedience is not a tactic the federation would use, said national director Susan Tully. “I’m not sure he’s the guy to take the organization where it wanted to go,” she said.
Hayes said he would likely step down as acting director.
For now, he continues to meet regularly with the dozen or so Choose Black America members in Spencer’s Inglewood office. At one recent meeting, initial discussion about immigration-related news quickly turned into tirades about illegal immigrants—their “slave labor” wages, their use of housing and healthcare benefits, their appropriation of black civil rights symbols for their cause.
But the outbursts masked personal pain. Elzie Alexander, jobless and homeless, said he has applied for dozens of jobs flipping burgers and cleaning hotels but has been turned down each time because he can’t speak Spanish. Spencer said nearby hospitals have had to close, which he blames on too many uninsured illegal immigrants.
For speaking up about their plight, the men say they are grateful to Hayes.
“He stood up to the plate when no one else did,” Spencer said.