Blacks, Latinos and the Immigration Debate

The immigration debate has exposed tensions between Latinos and African Americans. Farai Chideya discusses the issue with Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of Immigration Studies at New York University, and Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and author of numerous books about the African-American experience.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host

The size of these protests has taken many people by surprise. And while some causes draw a coalition of races, African Americans have been largely absent from these immigration rallies. Blacks and Latinos are the nation's two largest communities of color and they're often forced to compete over scarce resources, jobs and housing. Joining us to discuss this further in our New York bureau is Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-founder of the Harvard Immigration Project and co-director of Immigration Studies at New York University.

And with me NPR West in Culver City is Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and author of numerous books about the African American experience. Welcome to you both.

Mr. EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON (Political Analyst): Thank you.

Mr. MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO (Co-Founder Harvard Immigration Project): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So Earl, let me start with you. Yesterday on our program we spoke with Lawrence Katz. He's an economist at Harvard, co-authored a study that says that Mexican-born workers are lower skilled and basically are competing with lower skilled African Americans for jobs. Now, overall, Americans may benefit from the lowering of the wage base--which is roughly 8 percent--lowering of the wage base. But African American workers, many of whom of us are not that educated, we're suffering. Is that what you see in Los Angeles?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Well, not only see, but also hear. I the last week with the massive protests, particularly in Los Angeles, a number of African Americans, in fact, called my office; the things that I've heard on the street just people talking, it's not scientific it's quantitative; it's anecdotal.

And the message is this: look, our communities are losing jobs. They're losing resources. They're losing a lot of things. And of course I keep hearing it's illegal immigration. So there seems to be a lot of blaming, a lot of finger pointing, a lot of scapegoating of illegal immigration for many of the economic problems in the African American community.

Is it fair? No. But remember oftentimes perception drives reality. Now, one other thing is coming on the heels of two other studies; the Princeton, Columbia, Harvard study which shows that young African American males are at dreary economic plight, losing jobs, losing income, education all the areas are suffering there; and then the State of Black America report from the Urban League, also painted a devastating picture of economic life among young African American males. So all of these things coming together paint a picture, at least in the minds of some, that we're losing ground, and of course, the easy target is illegal immigrants.

CHIDEYA: Very briefly, Earl, what about the CBC, the Congressional Black Caucus, only nine of 43 members supporting a more liberal stance on immigration?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Well, I think what we're seeing with the CBC, they're looking over their shoulders just like many others in the African American community that call themselves leaders. They have a constituency, obviously. Their constituency is overwhelmingly African American and working African American voters.

So they're hearing many of the same kind of negative things from African Americans about the impact of illegal immigration on their community. So as a result of that, many of them are saying: We're going to tread lightly on this. That's why you haven't seen this overwhelming presence of support from the Congressional Black Caucus, with some exceptions.

CHIDEYA: Marcelo, let me turn to you. You just visited with Mexican President Vincente Fox. Incidentally, of course, President Bush was also visiting the country for a summit. Tell us what the Mexican president sees as the migration issue from his perspective?

Mr. SAUREZ OROZCO: Actually, I didn't see President Fox. I was invited by the Mexican Secretary of State to a major international conference on global migration, which of course focus on the elephant in the room, which is the issue of this: the largest flow of immigration from Mexico into our country.

I think from the point of view of what I learned in Mexico is, a--the Mexican elite, the Mexican government, really for the first time in history, acknowledging that a great deal of what's driving large-scale emigration from Mexico to our country has to do with the inability of the Mexican economy to generate the kinds of good jobs that would keep Mexican migrants in Mexico.

I think that beyond that, there is, of course, an increasing concern, as Earl pointed out, about the general scapegoating of Mexican immigrants. More people are dying crossing the border. There's more violence. There's more organized violence at the border. We've seen militia groups in the southern border become increasingly active over what is a really very complicated question of how this new, huge wave of immigration--not only from Mexico, by the way. Large significant numbers of immigrants from the Caribbean basin, huge numbers of highly educated immigrants coming from Africa--Africans are now the most highly educated group coming to the US. Large numbers of doctors from Ghana, doctors from Nigeria, other regions of the world.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Marcello, I don't want to interrupt, but we have so little time left, and you mentioned a very important fact, that 12 percent of the workforce is foreign-born. 30 years ago, it was just five or six percent. Final point, let me ask you, very briefly--hopefully get Earl in on this--is this a new civil rights movement. Is the Latino immigration protest movement part of a new civil rights movement?

Prof. OROZCO: I have to say, nobody anticipated the numbers and the passion and the coherence with which these new immigrants took to the streets. Compare what happened in Los Angeles to what happened in Paris in November. Look at the difference between people--families with children, grandparents waving American flags--versus the burning of Paris by second-generation immigrant-origin youth. A very different story. I believe this is really the beginning of a new movement that will revitalize our worker's movement. The religious groups have been deeply involved in this, and I think we really need to think about how alliances and common interests are really the way out of this. Fighting over the crumbs of an increasingly unequal economy is really not the solution moving forward.

CHIDEYA: Earl, very briefly.

Mr. EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON (Political Analyst and Author): Okay. Jobs and equality in 1963 was a general theme of the march on Washington. A quarter of a million people turned out during the era of civil rights protest. I see this same parallel with the immigrant rights movement. Jobs and equality, democracy, an end to discrimination. Great parallels.

CHIDEYA: All right, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, political analyst and author and Marcelo Suarez Orozco, co-director of immigration studies at New York University. Thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. OROZCO: Thank you.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Thank you.

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