Immigrants, other minorities must find unity
María Blanco, Eva Paterson, Hector Preciado and Van Jones
San Francisco Chronicle
During the unprecedented mobilizations for immigrants' rights, much has been
written and said about tensions between the African American community and
the immigrant community.
The common theme in many of these reports is that African Americans feel
immigrants are responsible for the economic displacement of African
Americans and for the lowering of wages, particularly in blue collar and
service jobs. Reading between the lines, there is also a sense of a
different kind of displacement when headlines, sound bites, and some
immigrant rights spokespersons refer to the "new civil rights movement."
In the face of this much-publicized division (much of it based on the
statements of a few individuals), many leaders in both communities have
stepped forward to express unity between our two movements, fully aware that
both of our communities have faced similar discrimination and scapegoating.
The expression of unity is welcomed and needed.
But sometimes the rush to close ranks cuts short a discussion that is
necessary in order to build genuine unity between our communities. For
example, some of us wince when we hear the rallying cry: "We do the jobs
that nobody else will do." Is that a positive, unifying message? Yes, it is
positive because it rebuts the unfounded argument that immigrants drain,
rather than contribute to the economy.
The May 1 marches publicly demonstrated what we all know to be the case from
our personal experience: Immigrants are an integral part of our economy and
our communities. But this statement of pride can have unintended divisive
effects. African Americans in particular are acutely sensitive to the
existence of a highly exploited, second tier work force.
It also prompts the question of why those subsistence jobs exist, and
whether we should accept them as an unavoidable part of today's economic
The fact is that immigrants in the United States predominantly occupy jobs
that cannot be outsourced by U.S. businesses seeking to compete in the
global economy. As much as they may want to, companies cannot outsource jobs
in the hotel, agriculture, construction, restaurants or meatpacking
industries the way they have other jobs that used to be the mainstay of the
U.S. worker: auto, steel, shoes, garment, textile, electronics and so on.
Instead of viewing immigrants who take low-paying jobs to help their
families survive as the cause of low wages, effective unity in the civil
rights movement involves taking a hard look in the opposite direction: at
political and economic policies that have lowered wages, created jobs with
no health insurance or safety regulations, and eliminated the safety net.
According to a recent study by the Commonwealth Fund, 41 percent of adults
with incomes between $20,000 and $40,000 a year did not have health
insurance for at least part of 2005, up from 28 percent without coverage in
2001. Blame for the existence of jobs without health insurance cannot be
laid at the feet of immigrants. Nor can the demise of unions and extensive
layoffs due to companies who go overseas.
Communities that face unemployment should focus on the policies that have
created an unprecedented number of billionaires and millionaires and an
unprecedented economic divide.
As for the new civil rights movement, perhaps much of the discomfort created
by this phrase is due to the fact that there is still much unfinished
business in the "old" civil rights movement. The immigrant rights movement
has to be sensitive to that reality.
The spark that generated the mass mobilizations over the past month -- a
federal law that would make it a felony to be an undocumented immigrant or
to provide any service to them -- echoes the fugitive slave laws of the
Latino immigrants who today march for dignity know that they are part of the
great tradition of the freedom marches, launched and led by African
Americans. While immigrants have clearly mobilized in new ways, never to go
back to an era where politicians and demagogues could use anti-immigrant
rhetoric and policies to launch their political careers, maybe it is more
accurate to say that the civil rights movement has grown and crossed
borders, both literally and culturally.
Just before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was expanding
the reach of the civil rights movement with the "Poor People's March on
Washington," a movement that brought together the issues of race and
The immigrant rights marches are part of that continuum. So are concerns
about backlash that are making the rounds. The same was said in response to
the huge civil rights marches and sit-ins of the 1960s. The naysayers will
always be there. So will those who want to divide us. What we have before us
is an opportunity to reinvigorate our mutual work with the energy captured
by the spirited expression that rang out across the nation on May 1 -- sí se
María Blanco is the executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil
Rights. Eva Paterson is the president of the Equal Justice Society. Hector
Preciado is the director of strategic communications at the Greenlining
Institute. Van Jones is the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for
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