Immigration's race card

Are civil rights for blacks and immigrant rights on opposite sides of the border?

By Andrew Leonard
March 29, 2006 1:17AM (UTC)
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George Bush and legal immigrants agree: Undocumented workers do jobs that native-born Americans don't want to do. So say poll results released today by New America Media, a coalition of ethnic news organizations founded by Pacific News Service. An overwhelming majority of the 800 legal immigrants polled "think that the undocumented 'take jobs that legal residents and citizens do not want to do.' These legal immigrants also feel that the undocumented have a positive impact on the quality of life of Americans and 'help the economy by providing low cost labor.'"

There is no avoiding the hot-button that those poll results press. As several letter writers responding to my post yesterday about immigration noted, I left one crucial factor out of my quick-and-dirty analysis: the question of race.


The left splits on the issue of race and immigration as if the San Andreas fault ran through it. Case in point: An eloquent letter from Eunice Hyunhye Cho, education director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, asserts that "anti-immigrant groups have appealed to the fear of lower wages, unemployment, and falling standards of living for working-class citizens. Some groups have even gone so far as to lobby African American workers into their nativist fray."

But the truth is, they don't need to do much lobbying. African-American resentment at illegal immigration is real. For anecdotal evidence, one can just look at the online comments written in response to two articles on the topic by Earl Ofari Hutchinson. In one, he recounts his experience hearing a young black man in Los Angeles proudly declare that he had served as a "Minuteman" -- the vigilante group that has taken it upon itself to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. In the other, Hutchinson asks why traditional civil rights groups weren't part of the mass demonstrations in Los Angeles this past weekend.

Hutchinson blames "a shrinking economy, sharp state and federal government cuts in and elimination of job and skills training programs, failing public schools, a soaring black prison population and employment discrimination" as the "prime causes of the poverty crisis in many inner city black neighborhoods." But many of his readers don't appear to agree. There is also some empirical evidence that illegal (and legal) immigration does depress wages for less-educated workers.


The most vigorously argued attack on immigration's effects on black America that I've read is "Immigration, African Americans, and Race Discourse," by Stephen Steinberg. It's worth reading, even if it's bizarrely disorienting to see a left-wing academic line up with CNN's Lou Dobbs and Mr. Isolationist himself, Patrick Buchanan -- not to mention George Bush and the respondents to a New America Media poll mouthing the same sentiments. Talk about your new world orders!

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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