A movement for all

Editorial Notebook

April 22, 2006|By MARJORIE VALBRUN

Hispanic immigrants who took part in recent protest rallies around the nation repeatedly compared their demonstrations to those of the civil rights movement. Despite the small number of black participants at the rallies pushing for immigration reform, the protesters invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and linked the struggles of illegal immigrants in the U.S. today to those of black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. Protesters in Mississippi - a battleground state during the civil rights era - even sang "We Shall Overcome" in Spanish.

Some African-Americans watched the widely televised events with a mixture of sympathy and support. Recalling their people's past struggles for legal and social justice, they said they felt kinship with the protesters. Others viewed the immigrants' embrace of the civil rights movement as an unwelcome appropriation and took to the airwaves to say so.

"It's a slap in the face to us because everybody knows that we weren't immigrants," said a male caller to "Community Comment," a radio show that airs on Washington's WPFW-FM. He also complained that immigrants were taking all the entry-level jobs.

Those who take offense at the protesters' historical comparisons note that the civil rights movement was waged by mainly native-born American citizens - not illegal immigrants - struggling to secure rights guaranteed them by the U.S. Constitution. They say undocumented immigrants aren't owed the same rights.

Such sentiments are an unfortunate backdrop to growing tensions over competition for jobs among lower-paid American blacks and immigrants. A number of black leaders have tried to discourage such thinking - and wisely so.

While various studies contend that illegal immigrants depress the wages of working-class Americans, particularly blacks, the studies don't agree on the extent of the problem or whether other economic factors and government policies play a larger role.

Last week, rally organizers enlisted black civil rights organizations to blunt perceptions that the demonstrators were advocating only for Hispanic immigrants. Representatives of the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and several other such organizations decried the "scapegoating" of illegal immigrants for problems caused by policies of the Bush administration that hurt blacks and Hispanics alike. They also said the arguments being made by whites opposed to legalizing or expanding the rights of undocumented immigrants echo the arguments that were once made against giving blacks more rights.

"The Hispanics are not our enemy; they are in the same boat as we are," said Paul Braithwaite, executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. "They are a natural ally for us."

Members of the black and Hispanic caucuses have formed strong alliances to address issues that equally concern their constituencies. This is a smart strategy that recognizes that they are politically stronger working together than apart. Even so, only a handful of black caucus members with large Hispanic constituencies have pushed for liberal immigration laws. The others have let Hispanic lawmakers take the lead advocating for the legalization of some 11 million undocumented immigrants living here, more than half of them Hispanic. Still, 39 of 40 voting black House members opposed a bill restricting immigration and classifying undocumented immigrants as felons.

The debate over illegal immigration and job competition is complex and ill served by simplistic generalizations. Immigration legislation, such as a bill pending in the Senate that includes a well-crafted guest-worker program, tough labor protections, hiring rules that give Americans priority and steep fines for employers that hire illegal immigrants, can protect the rights of all workers.

Meanwhile, it's worth remembering that immigrants imitating the proven strategies of the civil rights movement are also displaying admiration for those who waged past battles for political and social justice.

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