Civil rights groups shamefully silent on immigrant rights

March 30, 2006|By EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON

The great irony in the gargantuan marches of tens of thousands in Los Angeles and other cities for immigrant rights is that the old civil rights groups have been virtually mute on immigration and the demonstrations.

There are no position papers, statements or press releases on the Web sites of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on immigration reform, and nothing on the marches.

The Congressional Black Caucus hasn't done much better. It has issued mostly perfunctory, tepid and cautious statements opposing the draconian provisions of the House bill that passed last December. The bill calls for a wall on the Southern border, a massive beef-up in border security and tough sanctions on employers that hire illegal immigrants. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill and sent it to the Senate this week.

The silence from mainstream civil rights groups and the CBC's modest support for immigrant rights are a radical departure from the past. During the 1980s, when immigration was not the hot-button issue it is today, the caucus in 1985 staunchly opposed tougher immigration proposals, and voted against employer sanctions for hiring illegal immigrants and an English-language requirement to attain legalization. That was an easy call then. President Ronald Reagan and conservative Republicans, then as now, pushed the legislation.

The CBC and civil rights leaders tread lightly on the immigrant rights issue for two reasons. First, they are loath to equate it with the civil rights battles of the 1960s. They see immigrant rights as a reactive, narrow, single-issue movement whose leaders have not actively reached out to black leaders and groups. Second, black leaders cast a nervous glance over their shoulder at the shrill chorus of anger rising from many African-Americans, especially the black poor, of whom a significant number flatly oppose illegal immigrant rights.

But illegal immigration is not the prime reason so many poor young blacks are on the streets and why some turn to gangs, guns and drug dealing to get ahead.

A shrinking economy, sharp state and federal government cuts in (or the elimination of) job and skills training programs, failing public schools, a soaring black prison population and employment discrimination are the prime causes of the poverty crisis in many inner-city black neighborhoods.

Recent studies by Princeton, Columbia and Harvard researchers on the dreary plight of young black males reconfirmed that chronic unemployment has turned thousands of young black males into America's job untouchables.

Yet many blacks blame illegal immigrants for the crisis and loudly claim that they take jobs from unskilled and marginally skilled blacks. Black fury over immigration has cemented an odd alliance between black anti-immigrant activists and GOP conservatives, fringe anti-illegal immigration groups and thinly disguised, racially tinged "America first" groups.

Historians, politicians and civil rights activists hail the March on Washington in August 1963 as the watershed event in the civil rights movement. It defined an era of protest, sounded the death knell for the near-century of legal segregation and challenged Americans to make racial justice a reality for blacks.

But the thousands who marched and held rallies for immigrant rights in cities across the country dwarfed the numbers at the March on Washington. If the numbers and passion immigration reform stirs mean anything, the judgment of history will be that the movement for reform also defined an era, sounded the death knell for discrimination against immigrants and challenged Americans to make justice and equality a reality for all immigrants.

The battle over immigrant rights will be fought as fiercely and doggedly as the civil rights battle of the 1960s. The latter forever altered the way Americans look at race. The immigrant rights battle will profoundly alter the way Americans look at immigrants. The silence of civil rights leaders won't change that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator and the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black." His e-mail is hutchinsonreport@aol.com.

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