One man's `amnesty' is another's `disaster'

June 06, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- A group of black leaders vigorously opposed to anything resembling amnesty for illegal immigrants unveiled themselves at the National Press Club late last month. The most notable quality that I noticed about the group of educators, organizers and commentators was how unknown they probably are to most other black Americans.

Instead of high-profile civil rights establishmentarians, the group included the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, conservative author of the 2003 book Scam: How the Black Leadership Exploits Black America.

Although they are only beginning, at best, their arc upward in national prominence, the group called Choose Black America expresses an opposition to illegal immigrants that is hardly unfamiliar in black conversations that I have heard. They see President Bush's plan for amnesty and guest workers as a disaster for all Americans that will hit black citizens the hardest.

Mr. Bush's line that illegal immigrants are taking jobs that Americans are not taking was ridiculed as a "flimsy excuse" by James E. Clingman, a columnist, University of Cincinnati professor and founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce. "Pay us a living wage," he said, "and we will work for those jobs."

It is worth noting that Choose Black America is the second minority-based group created by the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform that favors a crackdown on illegal immigration. In April, FAIR helped create You Don't Speak for Me, a national group of Hispanic-Americans who also oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants.

While polls show blacks to be as diverse as other Americans in our immigration views, I am often asked why black Americans have not been more vocal in the heated debate to resolve two starkly different House and Senate immigration bills. The House measure emphasizes stronger border protection and law enforcement. The Senate bill allows a path to citizenship that House hard-liners call "amnesty" and refuse to accept.

Black lawmakers largely have stood on the sidelines, an apparent reflection of their mostly black constituents' attitudes.

A Pew Research Center poll in April found that about half of black respondents agreed that immigrants today "are a burden because they take jobs, housing, etc." A larger majority thought Latin American immigrants are hardworking and expressed more sympathy with their plight than did white respondents.

As angry or, at least, skeptical as many African-Americans may be about the pressure that illegal immigrants put on the market for low-wage jobs, our passions as a political community remain remarkably cool on the issue. Some of us may complain about it, but few of us appear to be basing our votes on it.

The same does not appear to be true for Mr. Bush's core voters. He proudly made a guest-worker program a key issue at the start of his second term, but immigration soon has turned into a no-win political hot potato that divides his base. A tough immigration bill risks alienating the Hispanic and other voters who were attracted to his "compassionate conservatism" in 2000. A lax bill that sounds like amnesty - or no bill at all - risks alienating tough-law-enforcement voters.

With both sides deeply dug in, fall elections rapidly approaching and both Mr. Bush and Congress suffering from low poll numbers, the prospects for an immigration reform bill this year appear to be bleak.

Yet the issue is not going away.

At present, our immigration policy continues to look and sound like make-believe: It looks tough on paper, but in reality it is broken and too hot these days for our political establishment to handle. We may chase the immigration issue back into the bushes for a while, but like newcomers desperately sneaking across our borders, it won't stay hidden for long.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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