The years have been hard on the South Bronx. But there was a time, before the banks disinvested, exposing homes to the arsonist’s torch, before crack and AIDS devastated whole families, that kids in the South Bronx knew better than to think that misdeeds would go unreported to their mothers. Back then, family meant the neighborhood and the neighborhood meant community, remembers Cerita Parker. That principle compels Parker–as a black woman, a community organizer and a mother–to champion immigrant rights.
Wearing dark glasses and long braids, Parker shares the message of her mission inside the storefront office of Mothers on the Move (MOM), the grassroots group to which she belongs. She explains to new members, and reminds a few veterans of the South Bronx group, why immigration belongs on their organizing agenda alongside environmental justice, housing and education.
“How can we close our eyes to our neighbors?” asks Parker, referring to undocumented immigrants. “It’s just another device to divide and conquer. They want us to compete for the very basic things. No one is talking about the bigger picture.”
Parker speaks about reports of discord between African-Americans and undocumented immigrants, primarily from Mexico and Central America. Despite the arguments that illegal immigration diminishes wages and jeopardizes the blue-collar jobs typically filled by blacks, MOM is intent on seizing on the momentum created by the immigrant mobilizations to grow its familia.
When the House approved the Sensenbrenner bill (HR 4437), which proposes to criminalize immigrants and anyone who helps or works with them, MOM took it as a threat to its efforts to organize the community. The group responded to the call for a national boycott on May 1 by shutting the gate to its storefront, and members joined the bodega owner and barber next door in forming a human chain on the Grand Concourse, the historic main street of the South Bronx.
“We live with Mexicans, we live with Central Americans, we live with Africans. The same problem that immigrants are going through, regular people go through,” said Wanda Salaman, executive director of MOM, an imposing Afro-Boricua with a round, smiling face framed by a short bob. “The rents aren’t cheaper for American citizens, the schools are the same. Just because we’re American citizens, it doesn’t mean they are going to clean the streets, because they don’t.” Even if all the undocumented immigrants were deported, Salaman notes, it wouldn’t make life better in the South Bronx and other neighborhoods in the United States where working-class and poor African-Americans and Latinos live and work.
Nonetheless, a debate rages on the radio airwaves, in local political circles and in corner shops about whether undocumented immigrants undermine the upward mobility of African-Americans. In a poll conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, more than a third of African-Americans said they or a family member had lost their job to an undocumented immigrant.
In a heated online discussion among members of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, one message rang out: Blacks Should Not Suffer Because Mexico Is a Failed State.
However, as San Francisco State political scientist Robert Smith argues, “The damage to African-Americans has been done. There is no way to undo it. I would support the U.S. exercising the right to secure its borders and to remove people who have no right to be here, but it can’t be done in a rational, humane way.” The only solution for African-Americans is to support legalization, he says. Once those who are most easily exploited obtain legal status, blacks will gain an ally; only together can they revive the working-class struggle.