When it comes to immigration issues, it’s useful to keep in mind that the United States of America was born as a white supremacist state. Although the ideology of white supremacy was not officially stipulated, it was an implicit assumption, made explicit by the pitiless genocide of the indigenous population and the ruthless kidnapping of enslaved Africans. The nation’s first Naturalization Act, of 1790, made it official by restricting American citizenship exclusively to “free white persons.” That legislation codified the disenfranchisement of the growing population of enslaved Africans and allowed the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which made illegal aliens of slaves who escaped from so-called “slave states.”
It also allowed this fledgling nation to deport thousands of Chinese immigrants who had been imported to build the transcontinental railway. After the coast-to-coast system was completed, in 1869, Chinese labor was no longer needed. This set a pattern that has since become well worn: The media began the process of dehumanizing the Chinese as opium-smoking purveyors of alien evils; they became the “yellow peril”; and in 1882 Congress easily passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, forbidding further immigration from China.
This pattern, repeated throughout US history, makes clear that laws of citizenship ratified and reinforced white supremacy. Asians were the most consistent targets, but other non-Europeans also felt the sting of xenophobic immigration policies–including those Eastern and Southern Europeans once deemed nonwhite. The House’s Sensenbrenner bill–HR 4437, or the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, named for Republican James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin–is just the latest iteration of this pattern.
These occasional flare-ups of anti-immigrant discourse historically leave African-Americans ambivalent. Earlier spurts of (primarily European) immigration dampened their job prospects, and many black leaders openly expressed their opposition to unchecked immigration. The link between European immigration and black unemployment was crystallized when World War I shut off the flow of immigrant labor. In one of this nation’s largest internal migrations, hundreds of thousands of African-Americans left the rural South for the industrial North to fill those jobs.
But African-Americans also felt empathy for those darker-skinned immigrants, who were victims of colonial domination in their home countries and fellow targets of discrimination in the United States. That ambivalence is apparent in this latest immigration ruckus, which is focused primarily on Latinos. Most African-Americans in leadership positions express support for the goals of immigration activists, and several national polls show that black citizens back liberal immigration measures more readily than other groups.
There is, however, considerable opposition to such measures within the black community. This antagonism is based largely on issues of employment and on fears that immigration issues and Latino concerns will suspend efforts to redress the legacy of slavery. For example, a Pew Hispanic poll released in March found that 41 percent of African-American respondents in Chicago said they had lost a job to an immigrant compared with 15 percent of white, non-Hispanic residents. Some labor researchers have found that employers would rather hire illegal immigrants, because they will accept lower wages in cash, and have little power to redress abuses.
With a crisis of unemployment and incarceration afflicting black communities across the nation, some activists argue that more immigrants (legal or illegal) worsen the situation. Ex-offenders and inner-city victims of chronic education failures are particularly vulnerable, they argue. Much of the black opposition to liberal immigration policies is emerging from this segment of the community. In Chicago, for example, a group called Voice of the Ex-offender (VOTE) is leading the opposition to the immigration movement.
Those concerns are real, and leaders of the new movement would do well to incorporate the unfinished racial business into their agenda. Efforts to educate Latinos about the context of the black freedom struggle should be a high priority for immigration activists. If handled astutely, activists can use the energy of the immigration movement to help lift other civil rights issues off the back burner.
The new black leadership rising from the rubble of the incarceration crisis should understand that restricted immigration would do little to solve the African-American community’s long-term employment problems. In fact, focusing on undocumented immigrants as a cause of unemployment of unskilled black workers is a bit of a distraction. Black unemployment rates in cities like Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Memphis, where immigrant labor is a relatively small factor, are just as high as elsewhere. It seems clear that the primary barriers to black employment remain racial discrimination, the decline of the trade union movement and the deindustrialization of the economy. Thus, joining forces with the vibrant new immigrant movement struggling to improve labor conditions could well be the most useful strategy to achieve better conditions for all workers. The awakening of the Latino giant could be just what the movement needs to resume a struggle that has been in retreat since the end of the cold war, when unopposed forces of capital unleashed the experiment in neoliberalism that we now call globalism.
And just as the Latino giant in the belly of the neoliberal beast has caused concern, Latin American nations are doing the same in other outposts of capital. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela are all tentatively stepping out of the neoliberal embrace and spurning institutions like the International Monetary Fund. They now see how the trade policies of the IMF and other purveyors of the “Washington Consensus” have helped cause the economic distress that triggered immigration to the United States in the first place. Latin American nations are demanding new economic arrangements that offer sustainable solutions.
This struggle requires a vision, a shared notion of an imagined future. The new Latino-led immigration movement could plow the ground for the emergence of such a vision. If nothing else, the vitality of this new activism could provide the spark to jolt the civil rights movement off its ass and back into the mix.l