Black Immigrants, Black Americans Carry Split Views

Even though the number of black immigrants to the U.S.has more than tripled since the 1980s, immigrants of African descent are usually relegated to a footnote in the national debate on immigration. Eric Ward, of the Center For New Community, and labor expert Vernon Briggs, of Cornell University, discuss the disconnect between many African Americans and black immigrants.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin's away.

Coming up novelist Luis Urrea's latest book tells a familiar story of Mexican immigration from the perspective of those left behind. That's in a moment, but first immigrants of African descent in the United States. It's a community you rarely hear about in the immigration debates. Even though The Population Reference Bureau estimates the foreign born black population has more than tripled since 1980 to nearly three million.

In some African-American communities relations with these immigrants have at times been tense. In part that comes from the perception that cheap immigrant labor lessens job opportunities for lower income black Americans. But a new coalition of activists is contesting this perception and plans to build a network of advocates for black immigrants. Joining us now to talk about this is Eric Ward. He's national field director for the Center for New Community and a member of this newly created black immigration network. Also joining us is Vernon Briggs. He's a professor of Industrial and labor relations at Cornell University in New York. And welcome to you both.

Mr. ERIC WARD (National Field Director, Center of New Community): Thanks for having me.

Professor Vernon Briggs (Cornell University, New York): Glad to be here.

LUDDEN: Eric Ward first. You and a few dozen activists from around the country met last month in Baltimore to talk about immigration and various black communities. Can you tell me what concerns prompted this?

Mr. WARD: We came together to really look at three issues. To examine critical issues around black and immigrant relations, particularly the relationships between immigrants and refugees of African descent and African-Americans. We also looked to try to address immigration issues and other social and political issues facing our community. The third was there is growing concern within the African-American community within the immigration debate regarding organizations with ties to political extremists, including white supremacists.

LUDDEN: What were the things that you discussed? And did you feel a lot of this tension in that room there?

Mr. WARD: There were a number of issues discussed, for instance, in regards to critical issues involving relations between African-Americans and immigrants of African descent, there was a lot of group discussion regarding stereotypes and misperceptions that we have of one another. Um, also looking at a discussion of, you know, what does it mean to be black in America in this new millennium. We also looked at what it meant in regards to political and economic issues in the United States.

LUDDEN: You talked about the misperceptions on either side. What are the perceptions, say, African-Americans have of black immigrants?

Mr. WARD: Well I think within the African-American community, we struggled a little bit to understand the history of forced migration. For many of us it was new stories to hear about what is occurring at the political, economic, and social level in countries such as Haiti, Sudan, Somalia. I think for immigrants of African descent, including refugees, it was an important discussion for them to hear about the historical legacy of racism in American society and the present day disparities that still exist, that challenge the lives of U.S. born blacks every day.

LUDDEN: Professor Briggs, I want to bring you into this discussion.

Prof. BRIGGS: Sure.

LUDDEN: You look at immigration and the low wage labor workforce. Does immigration hurt job prospects for African-Americans?

Prof. BRIGGS: Of course it does. The major feature and the problem of our current immigration system is the mass abuse. One-third - almost one-third of the entire foreign born population in the United States today is here in illegal status. That's a colossal failure of public policy, regardless - it has nothing to do with the race issue. Any public policy in which you have that massive disregard for the enforcement of our laws is going to hurt somebody and disproportionately specially with respect to illegal immigration. The illegal immigration is about 82 percent of the foreign born population, of the illegal immigrant population have only a high school diploma or less. Most of them are less - the high school diploma. This means that they're disproportionately illegal immigration concentrated in the low-skilled labor market in the United States.

LUDDEN: Of which the major parties are black Americans is that, can we say that or not?

Prof. BRIGGS: Well a large number of - certainly one-third of the population - labor force, is in that low-skilled labor market. So that overwhelmingly puts them in a competitions trail for jobs. The illegal immigration system unfortunately also disproportionately supplies a large number of skilled workers. Historically immigration probably has been one of the most difficult problems for the black American population of the United States. That's why every black leader from the beginning of the country, basically, up until very recently has always called for restrictive immigration policy for enforcing our immigration policy.

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking about the relationship between the African-American community and black immigrants in America. Our guests are Eric Ward who recently helped form the black immigration network, and also with us is Vernon Briggs a professor of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University.

Eric Ward, we've just heard Professor Briggs say that through time black leaders have spoken out against immigration, feeling that it's really hurt their community. But your group now is taking a different view.

Mr. WARD: Well, I think we would say it's inaccurate that all black leaders throughout history have spoken out against immigration, particularly black leaders here in the U.S. That's actually not an accurate statement. But I think in regards to the black immigration network. For us, our concern is kind of the manipulation of statistics, of data, that attempt to shift the blame of racial disparity in this country of the backs of government institutions and onto the backs of immigrants including undocumented immigrants.

LUDDEN: But what is your message to your members? I mean if you have - at a national level you have you know statistics and so forth, but you must have personal stories as well you know, a home builder losing bids to a competitor who pays you know immigrant workers cheaper or something - I mean what is your message to members who may have concerns about immigration?

Mr. WARD: What I think it's important for us to understand is that according to professor Steven Pitts at the University of Berkeley - UC-Berkeley who just conducted a recent study. I mean there is no connection and no correlation between immigration and the lack of jobs for blacks. The real issue is that there is a two-dimensional job crisis in the black community. It is unemployment and low-wage work that stems from employment discrimination based off race, substandard education at K through 12 levels, and continuing attacks on organized labor. That those have been the triple pillars of the destruction of black economic opportunity in the United States to shift this blame onto the backs of immigrants. The truth of the fact is that why The Center For Immigration Studies says that they're concerned about the plight of black America. They really have no programmatic initiative that address the real plight of black Americans. Instead they use the plight of African-Americans as a ploy to hoodwink the American public and that's just not right.

Prof. BRIGGS: That's absolutely not true.

LUDDEN: Professor Briggs what about…

Prof. BRIGGS: That's absolutely not true. I don't know why we're sitting and talking about the Center Of Immigration Studies. The subject matter is the impact on low-wage workers.

LUDDEN: And can I ask you…

Prof. BRIGGS: This has been adopted by the National Research Council or the National Academy of Sciences, the highest research body in the United States in the report to the Jordan Commission. The Jordan Commission - Barbara Jordan happened to be African-American - called for the end of all unskilled legal immigration in the United States. Barbara Jordan was no racist. Neither was A. Philip Randolph, W. E. B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, all of those. The spokesman is saying things that's absolutely are not true.

LUDDEN: Professor Briggs.

Prof. BRIGGS: Historically immigration is the one that has had an enormous impact on the black American population.

LUDDEN: Professor Briggs, what about the argument that you know while there is an impact on a certain part of the population as you mentioned.

Prof. BRIGGS: Yes.

LUDDEN: Lower skill that in the national sense you know immigration does create jobs and maybe racism and hiring might be part of the problem here.

Prof. BRIGGS: Look, I have a long history of fighting for civil rights, for fighting for unionism. I believe in all those things he just talked about but I'm not saying immigration is part of the issue. Immigration - especially illegal immigration and our current immigration policy which remember Barbara Jordan's Commission unanimously called for major changes in the priorities. Our immigration system is desperately out of step. And what they called for was a shift towards more skilled immigration. Reducing illegal immigration, rigid enforcement of immigration laws to stop the flood of illegal immigrants in the United States, that was Barbara Jordan's commission. That wasn't…

LUDDEN: And she was an African-American and that was already more than a decade or so ago.

Prof. BRIGGS: You know and that commission was made up of five Democrats, four Republicans and unanimously called for reductions in the level of legal immigration and because of the adverse affect it was having on the labor market.

LUDDEN: Eric Ward, let me give you the final word here. Now that you've created this Black Immigration Network, what do you plan to do? What's the next step?

Mr. WARD: The Black Immigration Network will be working on three issues. So we will, one, be working to bring together, at the community level, African-Americans and immigrants and refugees of African descent to deal and address common social problems that we face in the community and to deal with stereotypes and misconceptions.

The second is to advocate for rational immigration reform in this country that is based in opportunity and racial equity. The third is to confront publicly these organizations that attempt to use the African-American community as a vehicle to spread bigotry and xenophobia regarding immigrants in this country.

LUDDEN: Eric Ward is national field director for the Center for New Community, which is now part of the Black Immigration Network, and he was kind enough to join us from WBEZ in Chicago. Professor Vernon Briggs teaches industrial and labor relations at Cornell University in New York, and joined us from that university's studios. Thank you both very much.

Mr. WARD: Thank you so much.

Mr. BRIGGS: Thank you.

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