Katia came to United States illegally from Jalisco, Mexico when she was two and a half years old. She doesn’t remember the journey, but her mother told her that she gave her Nyquil so that she wouldn’t cry when she handed her off to a human smuggler outside of Guadalajara, Mexico. As baby Katia fell asleep, her mother feared that she “wouldn’t see [her] ever again.”
But Katia made it across the border, where her father—who had been in the United States for a few months—picked her up. Her mother followed shortly after. The family established a life that was distinctly better than the one they had in Mexio. Katia emphatically insists that while she would maybe like to visit Mexico, she wants to live in the U.S.
Although both parents are currently employed in LA (her mother as a cook in a food truck and her father as a construction worker), they will never be able to hold jobs that keep them steadily above the poverty line. Jobs available to illegal immigrants tend to be below minimum wage, and paid in cash—the result of not having a Social Security number. Katia says that the fear of being caught is a “constant weight on my chest.” She lives on the “low-key,” as she puts it. Unlike many of her teenage peers living in South Central Los Angeles, she can’t get a driver’s license, another result of not having a Social Security number. When underage friends start drinking at a party, she leaves. Her friends accuse her of being too straight-edge, but she knows better than to find herself in a situation where she would have to show identification to a cop.
Katia found solace when the California Dream Act passed, which Governor Jerry Brown signed in early October. It allows undocumented students to access scholarships at the University of California and California State University systems, as well as fee waivers at community colleges. Her top choice is Pomona, and she wants to become a veterinarian. Her teacher, Ellie Herman, says that Katia, as well as some of her other undocumented students, view the Act, wrongly or not, as a “next step towards legalization.”
For some undocumented immigrants, legalized citizenship remains a distant dream, since the federal government did not pass the national version of the Dream Act. Additionally, the California Dream Act faces opposition in the form of citizens’ referendums—California’s infamously oft-utilized method of overturning or passing laws through the ballot box. And, especially in Katia’s neighborhood of South Central, the Dream Act has reignited a touchy discussion among some conservative African American leaders. As the black news and entertainment magazine, RollingOut, put it, “Should tax payer funds be used to support the illegal immigrant population and would… low-income, aspiring black college students would be dealt a devastating blow in securing funding if like legislation spreads across the country?”
A Changing Community
In South Central, proponents of tougher immigrations laws have found unusual bedfellows: conservative leaders of the African-American community. In a neighborhood that was predominantly African-American in the 2000 census, Latino’s now comprise over 87 percent of the population.
In 2008, the late Terry Anderson, a former auto mechanic and longtime African-American resident of South Central LA, thundered from KRLA-AM station, “I have gone on the streets and talked to people at random here in the black community, and they all ask me the same question: ‘Why are our politicians and leaders letting this happen?’” Anderson wasn’t worked up about the Jena Six or nooses on Columbia University doorknobs. Instead, he was fuming about the three illegal immigrants who allegedly murdered three African-American Newark college students that August. And when he criticized politicians for “letting this happen,” he directed his anger at members of the Black Congressional Caucus who supported open borders and amnesty for illegal immigrants. “Massive illegal immigration has been devastating to my community,” Anderson told listeners, “Black Americans are hit the hardest.”
Unease about immigration has existed in black political discourse since the 1860s, when Frederick Douglass warned Northern employers in an 1863 article, “every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant, whose hunger and color are thought to give him a better title to the place.” Douglass was referring to the influx of Italian, Irish, and Chinese immigrants arriving, but his quote contains a sentiment echoed by some conservative African-Americans through time: immigrants are displacing free blacks in the labor market.
Twenty-five years later, Booker T. Washington exhorted America’s industrialists to “cast down your bucket,” not among new immigrants but “among the eight million Negros . . . who have without strikes and labor wars tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded [sic.] your railroads and cities.” Another black conservative, journalist George Shuyler, favored the immigration reform acts of the 1920s, which limited European immigration, and also urged restrictions on Mexican workers: “If the million Mexicans who have entered the country have not displaced Negro workers, whom have they displaced?” he asked in 1928.
But the 1960s brought a change in the views of black political leaders towards immigration, especially after President Lyndon B. Johnson and congressional supporters of liberalizing immigration claimed the mantle of the Civil Rights movement for their reforms, which became law in 1965 and resulted in a 60 percent increase in legal immigration over the subsequent decade. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that blacks and poor immigrants had much in common and could become political allies. In 1967, he sought to revitalize the black freedom struggle as explicitly based in class, not race. The “Poor People’s Campaign”—a coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, Native-Americans, and poor whites—aimed to pressure the federal government to fulfill its promises on the War on Poverty. Related to his desire for such a broad-based coalition, in the run-up to the passage of the immigration bill, Dr. King endorsed the idea of letting Cubans fleeing Castro to settle in Miami. Jesse Jackson would later herald the imminent arrival of a mighty “black-brown” or “rainbow” coalition that would, he claimed, propel him to the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination. As it turned out, Jackson failed to win much Hispanic support, which mostly lined up behind Walter Mondale. But Jackson’s dream continued to spread among black politicians, including those in the Congressional Black Caucus, which became one of Washington’s most vocal groups opposing immigration restrictions.
But since immigration returned as a national issue in 2006, ambivalence towards immigration policy has increasingly given way to opposition and even anger. Recent polling data reveal the shift. Though a 2006 Pew Center national survey showed some ambivalence among blacks toward immigrants, it also found that in several urban areas where blacks and Latinos were living together, blacks were more likely to say that immigrants were taking jobs from Americans, and also more likely to favor cutting America’s current immigration levels.
When the Reverend Al Sharpton led thousands to the Arizona state capitol building in Phoenix in May 2010 to protest the state’s controversial anti-immigration laws, the black journalist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a Huffington Post contributor, noticed a “small group of mostly African-American counter-protesters hectoring the protesters on the periphery of the march.” Despite the opposition to the Arizona law of Sharpton, President Obama, major civil rights groups, and nearly all black Democratic state and local officials, there is a distinct strain of unease in black communities toward immigration reform.
BORDERS TO BULLETS?
Illegal immigration remains a hot-button topic on African-American stations like satellite radio XM’s “The Power,” with callers demanding more immigration restrictions. Some African-American bloggers have criticized black politicians who favor liberal immigration policies. “In the realm of pandering black elites, there is no more notorious public figure than [Texas] Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee,” wrote Elizabeth Wright in the online newsletter “Issues & Views.” “According to Jackson-Lee, those blacks who forcefully oppose mass immigration are simply naive and are being ‘baited’ [by white opponents of immigration] into taking such negative positions.”
In poor areas, proximity can result in conflict. Los Angeles tallied more than 400 racial hate crimes last year—the most, as a proportion of all hate crimes, for at least a decade. Blacks fared worst: they comprise just 9 percent of the population of Los Angeles County but were the victims of 59 percent of all race-hate crimes. Seven times out of ten, their attackers were Latino. Hispanics, who make up almost half the population, were victimized by blacks eight-tenths of the time. These numbers greatly understate the violence. They do not, for example, include the victims of a dozen interracial prison riots last year, which left two dead.
As the Hispanic population has expanded in formerly black areas, Latinos have also vied more intensely with blacks for affirmative-action slots, public-sector jobs, and political power.
This battle over quotas for public-sector jobs is a glaring example of how immigration is turning the race-based policies of the last 40 years, originally designed to help blacks, against them. For African-American leaders like Claud Anderson, head of the Harvest Institute—a non-profit dedicated to black empowerment—the turnabout represents a betrayal of the Civil Rights movement, because: only African Americans deserve quotas. “When did our government ever exclude immigrants or deny them their constitutional rights, as they did African-Americans?” he asked rhetorically in an interview with historian Steven Malanga. But for other blacks, the demands of Latinos and Asians that government set-aside programs include them are further evidence that racial preferences were misguided in the first place. “Blacks who support skin color privileges now will be singing a different tune later once government starts discriminating against them once again, this time in favor of Hispanics,” writes columnist and blogger La Shawn Barber.
California city councilperson Acquanetta Warren minced no words during her 2011 campaign. She enthusiastically cheered Arizona immigration law, citing a study that claims that the influx of Latino workers into a city increases unemployment and violence in the African-American community. However, as Hutchinson penned in the Huffington Post, “fingering illegal immigrants for black joblessness and discrimination won’t change anything.”
It is unclear if this debate will affect the imminent citizens’ referendums on the California Dream Act, or if conservatives will take advantage of this tension. Katia says that she understands some of the anger directed at illegal immigrants, but that she remains hopeful that someday she and other undocumented young people will become legal citizens. She said, “I know how hard it is for people who didn’t choose to come over here… they didn’t decide to for themselves.”
KATE WELSH B ‘12 doesn’t mince words.